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Senator's slush sinks disclosure bill

State Sen. Ron Silver, D-North Miami Beach, cheerfully did his part toward carrying out the Senate's plan for the next-to-last day of the legislative session.

He lay down in the Senate lounge and took a nap.

It was during a two-hour midday recess that figured in President Toni Jennings' strategy to fatally delay a sheaf of anti-environmental bills. Back in session, the Senate killed still more time by making mirth over what had happened to Silver while he slept. Sen. Ginny Brown-Waite, R-Brooksville, had painted his fingernails a bright pink.

Even Silver must be wishing now that he had slumbered longer.

After the recess, the Senate took up a House bill redefining the term "political committee." Though little had been said about it, it turns out to have been one of the most important bills of the session.

Florida law requires political committees that handle more than $500 a year to register, much like candidates, and report who gives them money and how they spend it. Last December, a federal court held this to be unconstitutional because it applied to more than just those committees that are mostly about supporting or opposing candidates and issues in elections. It applied also to those for whom campaign activity is only an "incidental" purpose. U.S. District Judge Patricia Fawsett held that this violated the constitutional rights of "issue advocacy" groups such as Florida Right to Life, which had filed the suit.

She held that the law could not be enforced unless the Legislature narrowed the scope.

As the state appeals, officials in Tallahassee concede that no new committee can presently be compelled to register or report. This would open a potentially vast loophole for special interests to campaign independently for or against candidates, using unlimited contributions like the political parties do, but without having to disclose them. It's also possible that the hundreds of PACs already registered could now ignore the law. A $500 limit on what they take from their contributors would no longer apply, so they could launder huge sums of special-interest money.

Candidates who receive direct contributions from them would still be limited to $500 a pop, and would still have to report them. But the original source of the money would be concealed.

The Florida Elections Commission's staff has said it will continue enforcing the law against committees that are already registered. Others are skeptical.

"While this may be an appropriate stance for the commission to take given their charge to enforce Florida's campaign finance laws," said a report by the staff of the House Governmental Operations committee, "the reality is that the Florida Right to Life case probably has a much broader impact."

In both the House and Senate, committees swiftly approved bills to limit the law to groups whose "major" purpose is to "expressly advocate the election or defeat of a candidate or issue." There was no apparent opposition. The Senate got the House bill April 26 but didn't take it up until May 4. Silver was waiting with an amendment.

Ben Wilcox, executive director of Florida Common Cause, said he pleaded with Silver to leave the bill alone so that it would go straight to the governor after the Senate passed it. Any amendment would send it back to the House, and time was running out.

Silver, he said, assured him that "Everything's worked out in the House. They're ready to take the amendment."

But the Senate was hewing strictly to the constitutional rule that the second and third readings of bills must be on separate days. So it was on May 5, the last day, when the election bill finally passed. The House got it back three hours before adjournment. Amid the turmoil of several major disputes with the Senate, it never came up, and "died in messages," as the official record puts it. The election law was left in shambles.

Silver pleads innocence.

"I can't believe that amendment, that would benefit every one of the members of the Legislature, would not be taken up by the House," he said Wednesday. "I had some assurance the House would take it up."

Who assured him that? He couldn't recall.

What happens now?

"I dunno," Silver said.

Silver's amendment, which effectively killed an indispensable bill, would have doubled the limit, presently $5,000 for House members and $10,000 for most senators, on the transfer of surplus campaign funds to so-called "office accounts."

In other words, slush funds killed the disclosure bill.

It figures.

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