Senate's campaign finance compromise gives PACs more influence

Published March 12, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Political slush funds will get a new name and campaign contribution limits will rise for statewide candidates under a Senate campaign finance bill that won unanimous approval by a Senate committee on Monday.

The proposal by Sen. Jack Latvala, R-St. Petersburg, is intended as a compromise to a House plan that makes similar changes and is a top priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel.

Weatherford wants an end to the abuse of political committees known as committees of continuous existence, or CCEs. They are used by legislators who raise unlimited funds, write checks to other candidates, and finance personal entertainment, travel meals and other lavish expenses.

The Senate bill, SB 1382, abolishes CCEs and raises the contribution limit for statewide candidates from $500 to $3,000, to $2,000 for candidates for certain judicial candidates and leaves the cap at $500 for legislative candidates. The House bill, HB 569, also ends CCEs, but raises political contribution limits to $10,000.

Despite the changes, several senators on the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee voiced skepticism about the bill.

"I guess this is the 'PC' bill. It's politically correct, but it doesn't really change anything in the real world,'' said Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami.

The House and Senate bills will shift much of the power, including the ability to collect contributions of unlimited amounts, from CCEs to super political action committees. Requirements will be tighter for the kinds of personal expenses the funds can pay for, but the legislator-controlled political committees will also now pay for controversial political ads that CCEs can't finance.

"Doing away with CCEs and the creating these super political committees, I'm not sure what you're gaining or losing,'' said Mark Herron, a Tallahassee lawyer and election law expert.

But Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, who ushered in the gift ban from lobbyists to legislators when he was Senate president in 2006, reminded legislators that "we got here because there were abuses of power in this process, because people took advantage of the titles they were lent by the public — in some cases for the express purpose they could monetize that title and be in the lobbying corps."

Former Speaker Dean Cannon is among the former legislators whose use of his political committee is raising the hackles of his former colleagues and lobbyists. Cannon, who left politics after being term-limited out of office in November, has opened a firm in Tallahassee to lobby the executive branch. But he has never shut down his CCE, which raised $1.1 million while he was in office and spent $830,000.

In the finals days of the 2012 election cycle, Cannon's CCE gave $25,000 to the CCE of Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Ormond Beach; $25,000 to the Florida Enterprise Fund, a federally regulated electioneering and communications organization; and $50,000 to the Republican Party of Florida.

Cannon said he asked the CCE chairman, Scott Thomas, to shut it down.

"I have been supportive of that CCE, but I do not have now, or ever had, complete control of it,'' he said Monday. "I have asked the chairman to disperse the remaining funds to the Republican Party of Florida."

In the past two months, since legislators have begun the discussion of closing CCEs, three legislators have started ones while dozens of others have kept theirs active. The newcomers to the table are Reps. Katie Edwards, D-Sunrise; and Sens. Maria Sachs, D-Delray Beach; and Kelli Stargel, R-Lakeland.

The Senate bill increases the number of campaign reports candidates are expected to file from eight to 21, including weekly reports after a candidate qualifies. The House bill excludes political parties from the accelerated disclosure requirements, but requires candidates to report daily in the final 10 days of the campaign.

Staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.