Looking to revamp Florida's campaign-finance system, a House panel Monday approved a bill that would eliminate murky political committees while dramatically increasing the amounts of money candidates could raise from individual donors.
The House Ethics and Elections Subcommittee voted 10-2 to approve the proposal (HB 569), which is a top priority of Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. Eight Republicans and two Democrats voted for the measure, with Rep. Janet Cruz, D-Tampa, and Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, the only dissenters.
The bill offers something of a trade-off: Lawmakers would get rid of so-called "committees of continuous existence," which are hard to track and can funnel money to campaign attacks. In exchange, they would allow donors to write checks of as much as $10,000 to candidates, up from the current $500 limit.
Supporters say that would make it easier for the public to know who contributes money and how it is spent -- though the actual amounts of money pumping through the political system might not decrease.
"Gone will be the days when people can hide behind a secret third-party group to put out nasty attack ads,'' said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.
Cruz and Williams said they want to get rid of the committees, known in political circles as CCEs, but they expressed concerns about other parts of the bill. That included the increase in individual contribution limits to $10,000 and another provision that would allow candidates to carry over as much as $100,000 in unspent money from one campaign to the next.
Williams said changes such as the $10,000 limits would favor incumbents as they seek re-election.
"By increasing these limits, (it) does not look out for the small guy," Williams said. "It does favor incumbents."
House and Senate leaders have signaled they want to make changes in the campaign-finance system during this spring's legislative session, though the chambers appear headed toward different stances on issues such as CCEs and contribution limits.
Senate Ethics and Elections Chairman Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, has indicated he does not want to raise contribution limits to $10,000 and has questioned eliminating CCEs. Instead, he has suggested cleaning up the committees, contending some lawmakers have used CCEs to pay for meals and other personal expenses.
Along with eliminating CCEs, changing contribution limits and allowing candidates to carry over funds, the House bill would require more frequent disclosure of finance information.
State candidates, political committees and groups known as "electioneering communications organizations" would have to file monthly reports during much of the year and more frequent reports when elections near. That would include filing every 24 hours during the final 10 days before general elections.
The Ethics and Elections Subcommittee tweaked the bill Monday to remove a provision that would have allowed candidates to make $10,000 contributions to other candidates. While Williams proposed that change, he was unable to get panel members to go along with other proposals such as keeping the current $500 individual contribution limit.
Bill sponsor Rob Schenck, R-Spring Hill, said political contributions are protected as free speech. He and others argue that increasing the contribution limits to candidates is better than having money flow to less-transparent CCEs.
"Let's face it, we would all like to see less money in the political process, but we know that that's not going to be an option," said Rep. Larry Ahern, R-Seminole. "On balance, and together, these reforms address the problem and provide the solutions."