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Campaign reforms win in Senate

For the first time in years, legislators are getting close to making meaningful reforms in an election system that has turned voters off.

The state Senate on Wednesday approved a sweeping bill that restricts independent expenditures, dramatically increases penalties for violations of campaign laws, bans deceptive campaign calls and limits the amount of money candidates can turn over to political parties. A second and final Senate vote on the package is expected today.

The House already has approved a reform package that is less stringent than the Senate's, but leaders expressed confidence that the differences can be resolved. Gov. Lawton Chiles _ whose 1994 campaign's deceptive phone calls helped prompt the reforms _ has pledged his support.

"Some of us don't like the way campaigns have been done in recent years," said bill sponsor Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor. "People didn't vote because they were turned off with the process."

Both the Senate and House bills contain many of the provisions recommended by Secretary of State Sandy Mortham, who oversees state elections.

"It's great," Mortham said after the Senate action. "They realized this is something people are demanding."

The House bill does not regulate independent expenditures because House leaders want to take up that controversial issue in a separate bill. Although the limit on so-called soft money might face a lawsuit, Mortham said she doesn't believe either party would take the political risk of making that kind of challenge in court.

Debate on the Senate floor Wednesday was at times heated, especially over the question of whether the state should eliminate the second primary in races where no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote (see related story, 8B). The Senate left the primary in place.

The Senate version of the elections bill:

Restricts soft money, the independent expenditures that became a factor in the 1996 elections as national party organizations poured money into state legislative campaigns. Under the bill, political parties would have to agree not to make independent expenditures or lose their share of candidates' qualifying fees.

Any political action committee that collects dues from its members _ such as certain unions _ could not make independent expenditures. That provision came in response to Republicans who asked why parties should be kept from independent expenditures when labor unions can make them at will.

Some who opposed the soft money provision of the bill asked if it violates free speech, a question raised in several U.S. Supreme Court cases that have outlawed limits on independent expenditures.

Increases penalties for candidates and parties who file reports late. Under current law some have accepted the $50 a day fine as the cost of doing business and filed reports late so their contributors would not be disclosed until after an election. The bill would increase the fine for reports due five days before an election to $500 a day for candidates, $10,000 a day for parties.

Limits party spending to $50,000 per candidate. Current law makes it illegal for candidates to accept more than $50,000, but puts no restriction on the party.

Prohibits parties from accepting funds earmarked for individual candidates. This is an attempt to stop legislative leaders from raising money from lobbyists with issues pending before the Legislature.

Makes certain violations of campaign laws felonies rather than misdemeanors with fines ranging from $1,000 to $10,000.

Limits candidates with surplus funds to donating more than $10,000 to their party. This is aimed at legislators who build war chests to scare off opponents and then donate the money to their parties to buy committee chairmanships and influence with legislative leaders.

Senate Minority Leader Ken Jenne praised many elements of the bill, but said it needs to go further. He unsuccessfully pushed an amendment that would have limited out-of-state contributions to candidates to $100 per person. Only Florida voters could contribute more.

Senators overwhelmingly opposed the amendment, suggesting it would keep them from getting contributions from family members who live out of state.

"This goes too far," said Sen. John Ostalkiewicz, R-Windermere. "I'd like to call this The Banish the Mothers Amendment."

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