Thursday, April 26, 2018
Politics

House Republicans vote to raise contribution limits

TALLAHASSEE — A year after redistricting made legislative districts more competitive, the Florida House on Friday passed a campaign finance bill that raises contribution limits and appears to give incumbents a political advantage.

The 75-39 vote was mostly along party lines. Democrats say the measure — which raises the cap on political contributions and lets incumbents roll-over $20,000 toward the next election — gives Republicans more fundraising leverage because they control the Legislature.

"I can't support this blatant, brazen incumbent-protection plan," said Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. "It ensures a small group of people will run for office."

Gov. Rick Scott's office criticized raising the cap on Friday, which put him at odds again with House Speaker Will Weatherford, who supports the bill. Earlier this week, the two clashed on supporting Scott's request for a $2,500-across-the-board teacher pay increase.

"Every time I've met with him, he's told me that he supports our bill, so that's news to me," Weatherford told reporters. "I think when he sees the wisdom of what we're trying to accomplish, he'll come around."

Both Republicans and Democrats supported a provision in the bill that eliminates Committees of Continuous Existence, a type of political committee that can accept unlimited donations that can be spent on anything but campaigning. CCEs have become personal slush funds for some legislators who use them for entertainment, travel and meals.

In exchange for eliminating CCEs, the House bill raises the cap on contributions to candidates' political committees from $500 to unlimited amounts, and requires that all expenses be related to the campaign. Parties, political committees and candidates would also face accelerated disclosure requirements that would force them to release their campaign finance records every day during the final 10 days of the campaign, and weekly for the two months prior to that.

Under the bill, HB 569, contributions would increase from $500 per election to $5,000 for statewide candidates and $3,000 for everyone else. Proponents say it will allow candidates to spend less time fundraising and more time campaigning.

"There's going to be the same amount of money in the political process," said bill sponsor Rep. Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill. "If we keep our contribution limits at the arcane $500, it just forces more money into the shadowy third-party groups that everybody in this chamber has derided over the past two days. One of the ways to flush out the insects that do that is to raise the limits, and therefore, shine a brighter light on them to know where the political money is going."

Opponents warned that raising the contribution limits will accelerate the political arms race of campaign cash, edging out smaller donors as candidates accumulate larger war chests with fewer contributors.

"Dissolving the CCEs is a good thing," said Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa. "However, this bill is not the way to achieve it. We will not make elections more transparent. Instead, we're making elections more confusing ... We are saying big money campaigns will win you the race and devaluing the small donor by maximizing the contributions."

The Senate is considering similar legislation, SB 1382, that sets the contribution cap at $3,000 for statewide candidates and $500 for local and legislative candidates.

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