TALLAHASSEE — Democrat Charlie Crist says he can't raise nearly as much money as Republican Gov. Rick Scott, but he can close the gap thanks to a big subsidy from Florida taxpayers.
Crist soon will get his first infusion of millions in campaign cash under the state's public campaign financing program, created to help low-budget candidates counter big-money opponents as long as they abide by a self-imposed spending cap of about $25 million.
Candidates for governor and three Cabinet offices who agree to limit spending by their own campaigns are eligible for matching money. The state matches contributions of $250 or less from Florida residents, and Crist has far more small donors than Scott.
Crist says more than 30,000 people have donated $100 or less to his campaign. Larger donations are also matched, up to $250 each.
"I think it's a good idea, because the public needs to be involved in our government, our democracy," Crist said at a campaign stop in Tampa on Saturday.
The first checks will go out Friday, but the Division of Elections said Crist won't get any money because he hasn't filed the necessary paperwork, which his campaign said is extensive.
Crist's campaign expects its first matching check to arrive Aug. 1 and be in the range of $1 million.
The infusion will help Crist cut into Scott's commanding fundraising advantage. Since Crist entered the race in November, his campaign and political committees have raised about $14.4 million and spent about $3.6 million, according to the latest campaign finance report. In that time, Scott has raised $23.7 million and spent $22 million.
Since the governor had more than $17 million cash on hand before Crist got in, Scott's committees had about $8 million more than Crist's as of Friday.
Scott's overall advantage is likely even greater because the Republican Party of Florida is starting to flex its financial muscle to aid Scott.
Scott opposes public financing, and in his 2010 race, paid for mostly with his own money, he said it was wrong for taxpayers to pay for campaigns when the state desperately needed money. He won a federal suit that blocked primary opponent Bill McCollum from getting a dollar-for-dollar match if Scott exceeded the spending cap.
Scott said it violated his First Amendment rights for his opponent to benefit from his own spending, and a federal appeals court agreed.
But the state's matching program for small-dollar donations is still in effect, and every major statewide candidate will take advantage of it this fall except for Scott, who's expected to spend up to $100 million in pursuit of a second term.
Said Scott campaign spokesman Greg Blair: "Charlie Crist is a millionaire who already receives a taxpayer-funded pension, and now he wants to make Florida taxpayers fund his campaign. I guess we shouldn't be surprised."
Reminded that Scott's fellow Republicans will receive the same subsidies Crist is seeking, Blair said: "I have nothing to add."
Attorney General Pam Bondi, CFO Jeff Atwater and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, all of whom are Republicans heavily favored to win re-election, have applied for matching funds.
As a Republican state senator in the 1990s, Crist called taxpayer-funded campaigns "wrong" and sponsored a bill to abolish the program. But his bill failed in the 1997 legislative session when Republican Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater sided with Democrats to force a tie vote that continued public financing.
Crist, who also took matching money as a Republican in three previous statewide races, brushed off Scott's criticism: "Scott criticizes me for crossing the street, for crying out loud."
Public financing of election campaigns was pushed in the 1980s by Democrats who said it would rein in the rising costs of campaigns and limit the power of political action committees. That didn't happen.
In fact, Crist's decision to accept public money as a Democrat was a no-brainer because he, like Scott, has a separate political committee that can accept donations in any amount.
Contributions to that committee, Charlie Crist for Florida, do not count against the $25 million spending limit required to be eligible for matching funds.
Scott's 2010 Democratic opponent, Alex Sink, did not take public financing, a decision some Democrats have second-guessed.
Sink lost to Scott by 61,550 votes out of more than 5.3 million cast statewide.
The state's current handbook for candidates says of public financing: "In 1986, the Florida Legislature found that the costs of running an effective campaign for statewide office had reached a level tending to discourage persons from running for office" and that public financing was created "to protect the effective competition by candidates."
Democrat Ron Meyer, an authority on campaign finance and a lobbyist for the statewide teachers union, said Scott's ability to write huge checks to his campaign has greatly weakened the impact of public financing.
"The levelness of the playing field is dissipated when you're dealing with a multimillionaire candidate who can put in unlimited amounts of his own money," Meyer said.
Republicans in Tallahassee have tried to abolish public financing without success.
On the same 2010 ballot where Scott defeated Sink, Republicans asked voters to repeal it and even though a majority voted for repeal (52.5 percent), it fell below the 60 percent threshold needed to approve a ballot amendment.
Miami Herald staff writer Marc Caputo and Times staff writer Keeley Sheehan contributed to this report. Contact Steve Bousquet at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263. Follow @stevebousquet.