McCollum Wins Court Round, but Campaign Finance Law Faces Headwind

By: John Kennedy News Service of Florida | Posted: July 15, 2010 4:05 AM
Republican Rick Scott lost his bid Wednesday to have part of Florida’s public campaign-finance law overturned, but even the judge siding with opponent Bill McCollum conceded the 23-year-old measure may not survive this election season.

U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle denied the multimillionaire Scott’s request for an injunction that would have lifted the $24.9 million spending cap in this year’s governor’s race. Scott in court documents acknowledged he will likely top that limit by Sunday but maintains the state law is an unconstitutional restriction on his free speech.

But in siding with attorneys for McCollum and Secretary of State Dawn Roberts, who is charged with defending state election laws, Hinkle conceded his ruling will not likely be the last say by a court in the matter.

“Nobody can walk out of this room with the assurance that this is how this election will go forward,” Hinkle said, after delivering a 45-minute ruling from the bench.

Much of Wednesday’s hearing pivoted on whether Florida’s law should endure in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision last month to block Arizona’s use of public matching funds for candidates outspent by privately funded rivals or targeted by independent groups’ spending. A federal appeals court in Connecticut further clouded the future of public financing Tuesday by throwing out part of that state’s law.

Immediately after Hinkle’s ruling, attorneys for Scott said they will appeal to the U.S. 11th Circuit Court of Appeal.

In his bench ruling, Hinkle painstakingly laid out the grounds for his decision, saying that he felt Florida’s spending cap interlocked with the state’s $500 contribution limits to help combat corruption or the appearance of corruption in politics. He also found areas of distinction between the Florida law and those in Arizona and Connecticut.

Hinkle also said that while courts reviewing those state laws had signaled that they were in trouble more than a year ago, he feared that upending Florida’s spending cap so close to the Aug. 24 primary could cause “chaos” in the race.

Still, he said an appellate court or even the U.S. Supreme Court could soon counter his ruling.

“I’m not at all sure whether the statute will be upheld, given the way the wind is blowing in campaign finance,” Hinkle concluded.

McCollum, the state attorney general, expects to draw about $2.5 million in taxpayer money under the public finance system when the first round of checks is issued next week. That distribution is based on McCollum’s earlier agreement to limit his own spending and receive matching money for contributions of $250 or less.

Scott is not directly challenging McCollum’s right to that cash. But Scott, a former health care executive worth $218 million according to financial disclosure requirements, wants to stop McCollum from a dollar match in public money for every dollar that Scott goes over the spending limit.

McCollum campaign manager Matt Williams said in court documents the campaign expects Scott will spend $13 million more before the primary election – Scott has acknowledged spending $21 million already.

Williams also said McCollum had only $800,000 remaining in his campaign account earlier this month.

McCollum’s attorney, Harry Thomas, argued before Hinkle that it would not be fair to throw out the campaign finance cap when the candidate had made many of his budgeting decisions in anticipation of receiving matching money if Scott surpassed the spending limit.

“He changed his campaign spending strategy based on that expectation,” Thomas said.

But in urging Hinkle to throw out the cap as unconstitutional, Scott’s attorney, Enu Mainigi, said McCollum was merely trying to get taxpayers to cover poor campaign decisions. She said McCollum had a “wholly misplaced reliance” on receiving public dollars.

Scott’s campaign said it was preparing for another legal round, and renewed its attack on McCollum.

“We are disappointed with today’s result but we intend to seek appeal of the court’s ruling on an expedited basis to the 11th Circuit to defend Rick Scott’s First Amendment rights,” said Jennifer Baker, a Scott spokeswoman. “Today’s ruling is unfortunate and a setback for the First Amendment and Florida taxpayers.”

Echoing a steady campaign theme, Baker said McCollum already had a voter advantage having been a “career politician for over two decades.”

McCollum said following the decision that he was pleased with the ruling, but “not out celebrating yet,” because of the pending Scott appeal. McCollum added that Scott’s lawsuit shows a disregard for state campaign laws.

“I’m unhappy with him for doing this,” McCollum told the News Service. “I think he’s exemplifying how he disregards the law and doesn’t respect our law, Florida law.”

Meanwhile, voters are being asked in November to repeal Florida’s public campaign-finance law, which will appear as Amendment 1 on the ballot. McCollum offered an ambiguous stance when asked whether he supported the measure during an appearance Wednesday before the Florida Times-Union editorial board in Jacksonville.

“We don’t all have this silver spoon,” McCollum told the paper’s board. “If we’re going to do away with public financing, that’s on the ballot. I don’t oppose that in one sense, but I oppose it right now.”

News Service reporter Kathleen Haughney contributed to this report.

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