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Election finance case is argued

Secretary of State Sandra Mortham didn't use a dime.

But Bob Milligan, a political unknown in 1994, wouldn't be state comptroller today if he hadn't accepted taxpayer money for his campaign.

Opinions on public campaign financing are strong and divided. Some say it is welfare for politicians; others call it the last hope for fair elections.

One thing is clear: The practice of using the public's money for political campaigns is under fire more than ever in the state capital.

The two Republicans who lead the Legislature oppose public financing, which gives matching dollars to politicians who agree to cap their spending in statewide races. Legislation has been filed in both chambers to eliminate the practice.

And in a case sure to wind up in the Florida Supreme Court, Mortham has sued Milligan to stop the flow of money into the program. Lawyers argued the case Monday in a Tallahassee courtroom.

In the background is Gov. Lawton Chiles, who used millions of public dollars in 1994 to narrowly beat Jeb Bush, a Republican who raked in private contributions but refused to take any public money.

Chiles has made it clear he would veto any proposal to eliminate public financing. However, his staff said he would consider a compromise on the issue, now being floated by state Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.

"I'm trying to find a middle ground that makes sense," Latvala said Monday.

Latvala was the swing vote Monday in defeating a measure by Sen. Charlie Crist, R-St. Petersburg, that would kill public financing. After an hour's debate, the measure was defeated in a Senate committee on a tie vote.

Because of a procedural move, there will be another vote next week. Crist said he was assured of support by Sen. George Kirkpatrick, D-Gainesville, who was gone when Monday's vote was taken.

"I don't believe taxpayer dollars should be used to benefit a political campaign," Crist said, adding that more than $11-million spent on candidates in 1994 could have gone to other needs, such as public schools.

Latvala said he thinks one compromise might be to eliminate tax dollars from the public financing account, leaving filing fees and voluntary sources.

Supporters of public financing said the program is a good use of tax dollars, since it lessens the ability of powerful incumbents to continually get elected and eliminates the domination of wealthy special interests.

Public financing costs only 17 cents a year per Floridian, said Sally Spener of the public interest group, Common Cause.

"From our perspective, that is a very small price to pay for clean, fair, and competitive elections," she told the committee.

The public financing law allows statewide candidates to collect matching funds on contributions of $250 or less. Candidates who take part must cap their spending at $5-million in the governor's race and $2-million in the races for seats on the Florida Cabinet.

If a candidate who does not participate spends more than the cap, the state helps the opponent keep up. In 1994, Chiles raised only $3.9-million in private funds, which were matched to keep up with Bush's $10-million.

The same year, Milligan was a retired Marine general living in Panama City, virtually unknown and running against longtime state Comptroller Gerald Lewis. With a last-minute infusion of about $100,000 in public campaign money, he aired television ads that he says boosted his campaign to victory.

"People like myself, who have no political foundation or base . . . it gives us a chance to compete," Milligan said Monday.

His lawyers were in circuit court the same day to ask a judge to keep the money flowing for public financing.

A feud has been brewing since last year, when the Legislature decided not to renew a trust fund for public financing.

The fund expired in November, and Mortham now believes the state should stop collecting campaign filing fees that helped fill the trust fund. Most of the public financing _ $8.6-million of about $11-million _ comes from taxes.

Chiles has intervened on behalf of Milligan while House Speaker Daniel Webster has done the same for Mortham.

In the hearing Monday before Leon County Circuit Judge Nikki Clark, attorneys for Mortham and Webster argued that the Legislature should decide whether to pay for campaigns.

Attorneys for Milligan and Chiles said that despite the trust fund's expiration, public financing is required by state law.

Clark said she hopes to make a decision before the legislative session ends in May. Both sides agree her decision will be appealed to the state Supreme Court.