Legislative Leadership Funds Resurface

Posted: March 8, 2010 8:37 PM

A bill that would give the Senate president, House speaker and other leading lawmakers the right to establish committees that can campaign and raise funds for members of their political parties will be considered at the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Tuesday morning.

Supporters of SB 880 say it will improve financial accountability in state campaigns.

“Everyone’s been clamoring for more transparency, and this provides it,” said incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island.

Opponents say it resurrects what once was known as "leadership funds,”  banned in the state almost 20 years ago and could increase the influence of special interests.

“The last thing we need is more slush funds,” said Eric Jotkoff, spokesman for the Florida Democratic Party.

The proposal is attached to a bill, sponsored by Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, that enacts new regulations governing Electioneering Communications Organizations (ECOs).   

The bill -- and another in the House -- allows for the creation of Affiliated Party Committees. The Senate president, House speaker and minority leaders can create APCs to campaign and fundraise for members of their political parties. The right to create an APC is transferred to the incoming speaker and president once they are elected by their parties' caucases.

APCs are required to file reports of contributions and expenditures with the state after every quarter.

Haridopolos said the bill allows donors to know exactly where their contributions are being spent. Contributions to Florida's political parties are currently all lumped together in one big pot, making it diffiicult for donors and voters to determine which elected officials solicited the contributions.

The APCs will lead to improved transparency, but they may also open the way for abuse, said Daniel Smith, interim director for the Political Campaigning Program at the University of Florida.

In the wake of the Jim Greer controversy, in which the former chairman of the Republican Party of Florida was accused of funneling party money for personal use, Republican lawmakers have been searching for ways to secure their funds. Shortly afterward, Haridopolos and Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Haven, yanked close to $1 million from party funds.

“The leadership wants to make sure that they’re controlling the money they’re raising,” Smith said.

Smith said the APCs are regulated, but their quarterly filing schedule provides leeway for abuse. If APCs are allowed, voters may not learn of contributions and expenditures until long after the fact, Smith said.

Jotkoff, speaking for the Florida Democratic Party, said the APCs will open up funds and elections for special interests. “I think they are clearly trying to recreate leadership funds,” he said.

The sponsor of the House bill creating APCs said that an important factor distinguishes them from leadership funds. “The difference between leadership funds and what we’re doing now is disclosure,” said Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland.

All lawmakers are doing is codifying how funds are earmarked, and the bill, HB 1207, leads to more clarity and accountability, he said.

“All this talk about leadership funds to me is irrelevant,” McKeel said.

In addition to creating APCs, the Senate bill proposes new legislation for Electioneering Communications Organizations, or issue advocacy groups. Originally, ECOs were defined as groups that engaged in “expressed advocacy.”  

Much of the state’s ECO legislation was gutted last year, when a federal judge ruled it unconstitutional.

The new law restricts ECO regulation to ads that address a specific candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary. It also expands the amount an ECO can expend before disclosure, from $100 to $5,000

Politicians and pundits all agreed that the state needed to reinvigorate its ECO regulations.

“What we have right now is appalling,” Smith said.

But, he questioned the timing. He said that the incumbent politicians don’t need ECOs, and regulating is a way of controlling the political sphere.

McKeel said he thinks the proposed ECO regulations will pass the federal courts' muster.

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