As the House and Senate consider changing Florida's campaign-finance laws this spring, they are debating whether to increase a longstanding $500 cap on contributions to political candidates.
But new records show that many incumbents are doing just fine collecting $500 checks.
Already preparing for the 2014 -- and, in some cases, the 2016 -- elections, incumbents raked in hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions during the first three months of the year. Contributions particularly poured in shortly before the March 5 start of the legislative session, as incumbents are barred from raising money during the session.
Candidates faced a Wednesday deadline for filing quarterly reports, so totals continued to be added to a state elections website throughout the day. But among the leading fundraisers during the period, Senate Majority Leader Lizbeth Benacquisto, R-Fort Myers, raised $112,150, while Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, collected $111,100 and Senate Appropriations Chairman Joe Negron, R-Stuart, brought in $104,200.
Among House incumbents, Rep. Daniel Davis, R-Jacksonville, reported raising $95,353. Also, Rep. Jimmy Patronis, R-Panama City, collected $90,585 to help fund a 2016 race for a Panhandle Senate seat.
Aside from individual candidates, the reports also show that the Republican Party of Florida continued to dwarf the Florida Democratic Party in collecting cash. The GOP raised $5.99 million during the quarter, while the Democratic Party collected $1.1 million.
The reports also reflect the huge financial advantage that Gov. Rick Scott likely will have as he runs for another term in 2014. A committee with close ties to Scott's campaign, the "Let's Get to Work" committee, raised about $4.5 million during the quarter. Former Senate Minority Leader Nan Rich, the only prominent Democrat who has formally entered the race, raised $41,330.
Campaign finance has been a big issue during this year's legislative session, as House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has pushed to raise the $500 contribution limits, while also eliminating a type of outside fundraising vehicle known as "committees of continuous existence." A Senate committee this week objected to raising the contribution limits, a position shared by Scott.
Regardless of the future contribution cap, the newly filed reports show how lawmakers quickly started raising money again after getting elected in 2012. Building financial caches early in the 2014 election cycle could help them fend off potential challengers.
As an example, Sen. Dorothy Hukill, R-Port Orange, won a high-profile battle last year in a district that includes parts of Volusia, Marion and Lake counties. She turned around and raised $77,075 during the first quarter this year.
Similarly, Sen. Aaron Bean, R-Fernandina Beach, won a costly race last year in a district that includes parts of Duval County and Nassau County. Bean raised $63,950 between Jan. 1 and March 31.
As of late Wednesday afternoon, the Division of Elections website showed that 15 incumbent senators raised more than $30,000 during the quarter. Other top fundraisers included Sen. Rene Garcia, R-Hialeah, with $89,300, and Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, with $81,550.
Among the top House fundraisers were Rep. Dana Young, R-Tampa, with $61,150, and Rep. Steve Crisafulli, R-Merritt Island, with $56,800. Crisafulli is slated to become House speaker after the 2014 elections.