Gov. Rick Scott’s opposition to a House bill that would increase campaign contribution limits appears to have jeopardized not only that bill but also a Senate bill creating stricter ethics rules for elected officials.
The Senate passed its ethics overhaul, Senate President Don Gaetz’s top priority, on the first day of the legislative session, and the House last week approved its campaign finance package, a priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford. But neither measure has yet received a full vote from the opposite chamber.
The leaders’ priorities are intertwined, Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Jack Latvala said Tuesday. And Scott’s balking at one imperils both, Latvala, R-Clearwater said.
“The governor has probably sapped the energy out of any campaign finance bill this session… . What I’ve been told is they (the House) had to have campaign finance to pass our ethics package,” Latvala said Tuesday after the Senate Rules Committee unanimously approved a campaign finance measure (SB 1382) that did not include an increase in campaign contribution limits as the House bill does.
A few hours later, House Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Rep. Jim Boyd yanked his ethics bill (HB 7131) from the committee instead of having it go to a vote as originally planned. He said lawmakers needed more time to study a slate of recently filed amendments.
Responding to reports of Latvala’s remarks, Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, tweeted: “Campaign finance dead? Session has only just begun. ”
The comments came a day after Scott’s spokeswoman, Melissa Sellers, said the governor “can’t imagine signing a bill” that would raise contributions by any amount.
Scott, who plans to run for re-election in 2014, spent more than $70 million of his and his family’s money in his 2010 campaign, compared to the $17.5 million raised by his opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, under the state’s $500 campaign contribution limits.
Weatherford on Monday said he hopes Scott will change his mind.
“I cannot imagine why he would oppose a bill that increases transparency, ends slush funds and takes away money from third party groups. It’s early in the process and the bill is not even in its final form. Hopefully, he’ll come around,” Weatherford said.
The proposal, approved largely along party lines in the House last week, would boost individual contribution limits from $500 to $3,000 for local and legislative candidates and to $5,000 for statewide candidates. The Senate plan maintains the current $500 cap on all individual contributions to any candidate per election cycle.
Both plans require candidates and political committees to file more frequent campaign finance reports, and both effectively do away with “committees of continuing existence,” or CCEs, which critics including Gaetz say allow lawmakers to bankroll a “filet mignon lifestyle” to pay for meals, entertainment and travel.
But Latvala said the House plan doesn’t go far enough to keep lawmakers from “living high off the hog” and effectively gives the CCEs a new name – political committees — with no contribution limits.
“If you’re not going to solve that problem, why make everybody go through a lot of bookkeeping and changing,” he said.
The Senate proposal would do away with a “three-pack” exemption that allows political committees to run advertisements jointly endorsing three or more candidates, while the House bill would not change the three-pack.
The Senate proposal also allows county political parties to contribute up to $50,000 to any candidate on top of the $50,000 limit currently in place for state parties. Latvala said he included that as a favor to a Miami-Dade Republican.
The two chambers’ ethics proposals are not as far apart. Both would give the state Commission on Ethics more power to collect fines; prevent lawmakers from going straight into lobbying from elective office; and allow lawmakers to set up blind trusts to avoid voting conflicts.
But former Ethics Commission Executive Director Phil Claypool, who retired last year, said the blind trust provision in the Senate bill (SB 2) could allow lawmakers to hide assets instead of listing them on financial disclosures.
Boyd, the sponsor of the House ethics bill, said, “We’re pretty close” to the Senate version, but he delayed a vote in his committee that would have sent the bill to the House floor because he wanted the committee to review a dozen amendments filed by Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
He also said the House still wants the increase in campaign contribution limits and he thought Latvala was overreacting to Scott’s objections.
“We’re in the top three or four states in the union and our campaign contributions are among the lowest,” Boyd, R-Bradenton, said. “I think it’s the right time to look at that. Hopefully the governor will be able to listen to us and maybe have some compromise as we get closer to the finish line.”
He continued, “We passed elections. We passed campaign finance. We want to make sure when we bring the ethics bill to the floor it’s the right product as well. We’ve got plenty of time.”
The Senate Rules Committee on Tuesday also voted 10-5 to approve election law changes (SB 600) meant to eliminate long lines encountered by voters in the November election. The House approved a similar plan on the first day of session.
Under both plans, elections supervisors would be required to offer at least eight days of early voting but no more than 14 days for up to 12 hours a day. They also would be given more choice in their selection of early voting sites.
And both proposals would impose a 75-word limit on the constitutional amendments placed on the ballot by the legislature but only for the first attempt. The full text of amendments struck down by the court and rewritten by the attorney general would be allowed.
The election-reform proposals are meant to correct problems that occurred in 2012 after the GOP-controlled legislature shrank the number of early voting days from 14 to eight in a sweeping 2011 bill (HB 1355), signed into law by Scott.
Democrats have said the proposals do not go far enough.