Donations pour in to agenda pushers

TALLAHASSEE — The daughter of Wal-Mart's founder wrote a check for $836,000 in May to a group working to pass two questions on the November ballot to expand school vouchers in Florida.

Alice Walton's donation was the largest single check among nearly $12-million raised in Florida in the past three months by interest groups and individual candidates for state offices. That number does not include millions more raised by both major political parties in Florida, which don't have to report their latest fundraising until Aug. 22, just four days before the primary election.

Among the most interesting reports: The group pushing to place a gay marriage ban in the state Constitution has raised just one dollar to every four raised by its opponents.

It's a reminder that every two years in Florida millions of dollars flow to political groups trying to pass or defeat constitutional amendments and to electioneering committees. The latter are heavily backed by business interests and try to sway voters in dozens of contests for the state Legislature without expressly advocating election or defeat of particular candidates.

The result shows up in mailboxes across the state when voters receive mailers not just from candidates, but from groups with nice-sounding names that offer few clues to their agendas, such as People for a Better Florida or Florida Red and Blue Committee.

It was one of those groups, All Children Matter, that received Alice Walton's hefty check. For years the group has donated heavily to legislative candidates who support private school vouchers.

"We hope to see elected legislators of both parties who are in favor of low-income parents having the power to choose the best school for their kids. That's why we exist," said John Kirtley of Tampa, Florida chairman of All Children Matter and a longtime advocate of school vouchers in Florida.

With the help of Walton's money, and others', Kirtley said his group will distribute campaign literature, much of it by mail, targeting people who vote regularly.

"The only issue we care about is K-12 education reform, primarily through parental choice," Kirtley said.

Florida Red and Blue Inc. raised $488,000 since April for a total of $2-million to date. The group is working to defeat Amendment 2 on the ballot, which would define marriage in Florida's Constitution as solely between a man and a woman. The group's largest donor, Donald Burns of West Palm Beach, gave $100,000.

The group leading the drive to pass the so-called marriage protection amendment, Florida4Marriage.org, has raised $483,000 so far, including $23,000 in the recent period.

As the fundraising intensifies, electioneering groups and political committees routinely move large amounts of money among themselves as they prepare for a new cycle of hard-hitting mailbox advertisements.

Take, for example, Our Elders Count, an electioneering group heavily supported by the nursing home industry. It raised $859,000 in the three-month period ending June 30. Nearly one-third of that money came from HCR ManorCare, based in Toledo, Ohio.

The group, in turn, donated $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida, $25,000 to Floridians for Conservative Values, a group heavily supported by the sugar industry, and $25,000 to Citizens for Housing and Urban Growth, founded by Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton,

Bennett is one of more than two dozen legislators who control, in addition to their own re-election funds, separate committees that can accept unlimited donations. His group raised $45,000 in the past quarter for a total of $899,000 to date.

Another committee, Preserve the American Dream, controlled by Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-North Palm Beach, raised $72,500 since April, for a total of $726,000. Atwater, if re-elected, is expected to be the next Senate president. Like Bennett, he will use the money he raises to help elect key allies.

Many donors to legislators' committees are special interest groups with a heavy lobbying presence in Tallahassee such as Realtors, horse and dog tracks, health care firms and wealthy lobbyists and individuals, such as Miami Dolphins owner H. Wayne Huizenga, who gave $15,000 to Atwater's group.

By law, Huizenga could not contribute more than $500 to Atwater's own re-election committee.

The second-largest springtime donation to a political group in Florida, for $706,700, was from Harcone 44, a Jupiter development firm, to the Committee on Critical Challenges, a Miami-based political committee that says it's studying how to improve the Miami-Dade economy.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

Donations pour in to agenda pushers 08/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 4, 2008 1:35pm]

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