TALLAHASSEE — Florida legislators have padded their personal political committees with more than $20 million in special interest donations this election cycle, using the funds to buy attack ads, help colleagues win races and, occasionally, pay for travel, meals and perks.
More and more, special interest groups are sending five- and six-figure campaign checks to lawmakers through committees as a way to avoid the usual $500 cap on individual donations, a Times/Herald analysis shows.
The Florida Medical Association, for example, contributed $100,000 this cycle to a political committee controlled by incoming Senate President Don Gaetz and others. Disney donated $190,000 to another GOP-controlled group, Protect our Liberty.
And then there's GOP super-donor and Houston homebuilder Bob Perry, who pumped $250,000 into House Speaker-designate Will Weatherford's Committee for a Conservative House.
Decried by critics as slush funds, these "committees of continuous existence," or CCEs, allow powerful lawmakers to amass huge campaign treasure chests and spend the money with broad latitude. Each day, thousands of dollars course through the political system, flowing between CCEs, interest groups, consultants and lawmakers. By the time the money reaches voters in the form of a campaign ad, it can be difficult to know the true source of the funding.
As spending on CCEs reaches record levels, Gaetz is pitching reforms to the campaign finance system that he says will bring more transparency into the process.
"They have become extremely important in Florida politics," Gaetz said of the committees.
Gaetz's Florida Conservative Majority — by far the largest lawmaker CCE — has raised more than $3.5 million this cycle. Much of the cash has flowed in from the Republican Party of Florida. While Gaetz favors tougher laws on CCEs, he makes no apologies for the lavishly funded committees controlled by individual GOP lawmakers.
"Obviously, we have Republican candidates who are very effective fundraisers, and whose views seem to draw strong support from people all over the state," he said, offering a softer stance than he did last month when he proposed eliminating CCEs.
With lofty names like Citizens for an Enterprising Democracy and Creating Possibilities, the committees have played an outsized role in funding political operations this year. Spending by CCEs ranges from the typical $500 contribution for a legislative candidate to five-figure checks made out to the Republican Party and payments for political ads and attack mailers. Meals, plane tickets, consultants and "staffing" can also be found among the list of expenditures.
"It's making everything less transparent and less accountable," said Ben Wilcox, research director of Integrity Florida, a group that advocates for tougher ethics laws. "By moving the money back and forth between groups, you lose the ability to be able to point the finger and say, 'Here's who paid for this ad.' "
Republican lawmakers, who control power both in the House and Senate, receive the lion's share of the CCE funding. For example, the top 20 lawmaker-controlled committees — all run by Republicans — have amassed more than $16 million in donations. Committees controlled by Democrats have only raised a fraction of that.
The big checks have poured in from the usual power players in Tallahassee politics: energy companies, insurance firms, pro-business groups, big sugar and others.
Pro-gaming groups such as casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and the Genting Group — which bought the Miami Herald building last year with plans for a gambling resort — have poured millions of dollars into lawmakers' political committees.
Meanwhile, Disney, a staunch opponent of expanded gambling, has boosted its donations to CCEs to nearly $1 million, more than in 2008 and 2010 combined.
"Our contribution levels in 2012 reflect increased efforts to support candidates who oppose the expansion of casino gambling in Florida," Disney spokesman Bryan Malenius said in an email.
The Florida Chamber of Commerce is poised to spend more than $5 million on this election, with much of it going directly to the committees of influential Republicans.
"We have to go up against political forces that spend a lot more money than we do," said Mark Wilson, president of the Florida Chamber.
The chamber, one of the most powerful lobbies in Florida government, is hoping to parlay the political spending into a more business-friendly Legislature, Wilson said. It also hopes to hand out legislative defeats to trial lawyers and labor unions.
Wilson said that while he agrees with Gaetz's call for campaign-finance reform, he doubts that any changes to campaign finance laws will stop the flow of millions of dollars into the political system during elections.
"Getting your message across in a state of 19 million people is very expensive," he said.
Times/Herald staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.
Correction: An earlier version of this story attributed Mark Wilson's statements to chamber vice president David Hart.