TALLAHASSEE — A federal appeals court in Atlanta turned Florida's public campaign financing law on its head Friday, halting a critical provision that was expected to inject taxpayer cash into Attorney General Bill McCollum's struggling campaign for governor.
The ruling by a three-judge panel of the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals will put an immediate stop to the matching money McCollum thought he was entitled to when his Republican rival Rick Scott, a multimillionaire who is financing his own campaign, exceeds the state's $24.9 million spending cap. Scott has rejected the spending limits under the so-called millionaire's provision.
McCollum has received $1.7 million in state public financing because he has agreed to limit his campaign spending, and will continue to be eligible to receive public financing from another provision of the law. But the court injunction blocks the state from giving him the dollar-for-dollar match of everything Scott spends above the spending cap.
The ruling comes at a time when McCollum is trailing Scott by 11 percentage points in the latest polls and the GOP gubernatorial primary is only weeks away. The latest finance reports show McCollum has only $800,000 on hand for the Aug. 24 primary.
The court rejected McCollum's argument that the subsidy helps fight corruption and the powerful influence of special interests, saying he and the state hadn't proved their case because the spending cap is "not the least restrictive means of encouraging" that goal.
"At bottom, the Florida public campaign financing system appears primarily to advantage candidates with little money or who exercise restraint in fundraising," U.S. Circuit Judge William H. Pryor Jr. wrote. "That is, the system levels the electoral playing field, and that purpose is constitutionally problematic."
The court agreed with Scott's argument that the public subsidy provision "chills free speech'' by imposing a burden on his "right to spend his own funds in support of his own candidacy."
McCollum's campaign manager, Matt Williams, blasted Scott for challenging the law and "trying to change the rules in the middle of an election."
He said the decision to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court will be up to the Florida Department of State. State officials are still reviewing the ruling.
Among the legal options for the McCollum campaign, however, is to file its own lawsuit attempting to eliminate the $500 cap on individual contributions that hamstrings McCollum but not Scott.
The ruling reverses a two-week-old decision from U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle and casts doubt on Florida's public financing law — including the $500 contribution cap.
Hinkle said the spending cap for those who accept public financing was adopted by the Florida Legislature in 1991 together with the $500 limit on individual campaign contributions to "combat corruption or the appearance of corruption'' in politics. He said recent court rulings halted campaign finance laws in Arizona and Connecticut, but Florida's law is different.
Nonetheless, he predicted, the delicate balancing act between First Amendment rights and blunting corruption could mean that his ruling might be overturned.
"I'm not at all sure whether the statute will be upheld, given the way the wind is blowing in campaign finance," he said.
The appeals court cited numerous other court rulings that conclude that contribution limits "alleviate the corrupting influence of large contributions," but said Florida's system does not appear to offer a remedy.
Scott, a former health care executive with a reported net worth of $218 million, has poured at least $23 million of his own money into his campaign, and $8 million of his wife's money into a political committee he founded called "Let's Get to Work."
Meanwhile, McCollum cannot receive large direct contributions under law, so he has relied on political committees he helped found — the Sunshine State Freedom Fund and Florida First Initiative. Along with three other committees founded by his allies, the groups have raised about $3 million since June and directed much of that money toward bashing Scott.
The money is a who's who of special interests in the state Capitol: Blue Cross Blue Shield, U.S. Sugar, Auto Nation, the Florida Retail Federation, tobacco companies, doctor groups and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
Unlike a campaign, which is limited to $500 contributions, the committees can raise and spend unlimited sums as long as they don't expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate on the ballot.
Despite Friday's ruling, Williams, McCollum's campaign manager, said "we remain very confident we will have the resources necessary to communicate Bill McCollum's solid conservative record of leadership and his vision for Florida's future with voters."
Times/Herald staff writer Marc Caputo contributed to this report. Mary Ellen Klas can be reached at email@example.com.