Lights grow dim for campaign finance, ethics bills

Effort to increase campaign contribution limits takes a hit, ethics bill also could be doomed

Associated Press

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) -- The Florida House's efforts to raise campaign contribution limits while forcing candidates to file finance reports more frequently took a hit when a Senate committee voted Tuesday to strip proposed higher limits from its bill.

The action could mean a stalemate that potentially dooms the state Senate's priority of passing sweeping ethics law changes.

The Senate Rules Committee voted to keep the campaign contribution limit to the current $500 per person per election after stripping language from the bill (SB 1382) that would have allowed $3,000 contributions in statewide races. The vote came a day after Gov. Rick Scott's office said he wouldn't support a bill that increased the amount that individuals could give to candidates.

"Compromise is what makes this place work, but if the governor has a final word on it and if he's not going to sign a bill that changes that, then why pursue it any longer? Let's get down to the other issues that we can resolve," said Sen. Jack Latvala, the bill's sponsor. "The governor has probably sapped the energy out of passing a campaign finance bill this session."

House Speaker Will Weatherford indicated he isn't giving up on a campaign finance measure. He used his Twitter account to say, "Campaign finance dead? Session has only just begun. :)"

It's not uncommon for the chambers and a governor to dig their heels in on each other's priorities and suddenly reach a compromise at the last minute. Scott is a Republican, and the GOP controls both chambers.

The House is justifying its call for higher contribution limits by also proposing that candidates be required to file campaign finance reports more often. It also would eliminate committees of continuous existence, or CCEs. These are a type of political committee that some lawmakers have used to pay for meals, entertainment and travel that are unrelated to the committees' purposes.

Latvala, however, said the House's call to eliminate CCE's is a "cloak" in order to get higher campaign contribution limits. Lawmakers would still be able to form other types of political committees.

"They don't have a single bill over there that cleans up the abuses of the CCEs with regard to entertainment of members and members living high off the hog on them," said Latvala, R-Palm Harbor.

He also said he expected the House will hold up the Senate ethics bill.

"Unfortunately, the House is tying their campaign finance bill to our ethics bill, which we passed as our first order of business on the first day of session and it's been over there for 31 days," Latvala said. "What I've been told is that they had to have campaign finance in order to do our ethics package."

The Senate's ethics bill (SB 2) would give the Florida Commission on Ethics more power to collect fines and keep lawmakers from going straight from elective office into the lobbying business. It would also require ethics training for lawmakers and would keep them from voting on bills in which they have a financial conflict of interest.

The Senate Rules Committee also voted 10-5 along party lines to approve an elections bill that would allow at least eight days of early voting — and up to 14 days of it — while expanding the number of sites early voting can be held.

In 2011, Scott signed an elections bill that cut early voting from 14 to 8 days and eliminated the Sunday before Election Day — one used by many black churches for get-out-the-vote drives — as an early voting day. The state was criticized last fall for six-hour-long voting lines, and Scott has since said he thinks it would be good idea to return to 14 early-voting days.

The Senate would also require a maximum 75-word ballot summary on constitutional amendments proposed by lawmakers. That limit could be exceeded if the state Supreme Court rejects the language and it has to be revised. The Legislature last year loaded up the ballot with anti-abortion, pro-church, tax cut and anti-Obamacare questions designed to bring out conservative voters. They were also blamed for the long voter lines.

The bill would also move primary elections up two weeks, so they are held 10 weeks before the general election, and would allow military personnel returning home from combat zones or deployed in areas where they're ready to enter combat zones to register to vote up to the Friday before an election.

The measure (SB 600) now goes to the full Senate.

The committee also unanimously approved a bill (SB 544) that would make tweaks to the lobbyist gift ban. Right now, lawmakers can't accept anything of value — not even a cup of coffee — from lobbyists and people who hire them.

The measure would make exceptions for one non-alcoholic beverage. It would also allow a meal, beverage and the waiving of registration fees for a scheduled meeting or event in which the lawmaker is asked to speak or make a presentation. Another exception would allow the use of meeting space in government buildings for government events. It now goes to the full Senate.

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Follow Brendan Farrington on Twitter: http://twitter.com/bsfarrington

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