Ethics reform, campaign finance bills sent to Scott


"No one has shown me a rationale for raising these (campaign finance) limits, so I don't know why we would be doing it," said Gov. Rick Scott.

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Published: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 6:16 p.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, April 24, 2013 at 6:16 p.m.

TALLAHASSEE — Florida lawmakers struck deals on two major bills Wednesday that will strengthen state ethics laws, revamp campaign-finance laws and put political pressure on Gov. Rick Scott.

As part of an end-game strategy aimed at helping lawmakers conclude their annual session on May 3, the House and Senate approved a campaign finance bill (HB 569) that will lift contribution caps for gubernatorial candidates from $500 to $3,000. Scott, seeking re-election in 2014, opposes the move, as it could help his potential opponents, including former Gov. Charlie Crist.

By sending Scott the campaign-finance bill — a priority for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel — and the ethics bill (SB 2) favored by Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, during the session, Scott will have to act on the legislation within seven days.

If he vetoes one or both of them, it could sour relations with lawmakers and jeopardize Scott's key session priorities, including a $141 million manufacturers' tax break and a $2,500 across-the-board pay raise for teachers.

The tax break legislation is languishing in House and Senate committees, although it could be quickly revived. Lawmakers have essentially rejected the governor's call for an across-the-board teacher pay raise, backing a $480 million plan to award merit raises to teachers and other school personnel.

Scott, a wealthy businessman who spent more than $70 million on his 2010 election, had previously said he had a problem with increasing the campaign contribution limit from $500, a position he reiterated Wednesday. He also declined to make a commitment on the ethics bill.

"I don't see a rationale for raising the campaign limits," Scott told reporters. "On the ethics bill, I want to review it. We'll see what happens."

Legislative leaders were coy about any linkage between the fate of the campaign-finance and ethics bills and Scott's agenda.

Asked if lawmakers were trying to force the governor's hand by making him declare a veto before the session is over, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, who negotiated both the campaign-finance and ethics bills with the House, replied sarcastically: "Nooooo … I'm sure that won't affect the governor one iota. He'll do what he thinks he needs to do."

But underscoring the importance of the legislation to the leadership, Gaetz and Weatherford held a joint press conference late Wednesday afternoon to talk about the achievement. An hour and half later, the legislative leaders delivered the two bills to Scott — giving him a deadline of next Wednesday to act on the legislation.

"It brings sanity into our campaign-finance laws, and it raises the bar for every public official in the state of Florida," Weatherford said about the two bills.

"We believe he will sign the bills," said Gaetz, who told Senate members that passage of the ethics bill was his "proudest moment" as a lawmaker.

Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, a former Senate president, said he doesn't believe legislative leaders had any intention of holding the governor's priorities as a "hostage, but it certainly sets the table for the governor to make some decisions."

"It ups the ante a bit, I suppose," Lee said. "That's the nature of the process. I really do believe that at the end of day everyone is going to get out here with their priorities pretty well intact, but there might be a few tense moments along the way."

The ethics bill, after unanimously passing the House and Senate, will give more power to the state Ethics Commission, which could initiate investigations prompted by complaints filed by the governor, state law enforcement agents and state and federal prosecutors.

It also cracks down on the embarrassing fact that some public officials refuse to pay their ethics fines, allowing the commission to garnish the wages of scofflaws or turn the claims over to collection agencies. It also increases the collection period to 20 years from the current four, but does not allow the use of liens, which was a provision sought by state ethics officials.

The legislation strengthens conflict-of-interest laws and disclosure requirements for public officials.

It also seeks to end the "revolving door" for some lawmakers who were banned from lobbying the Legislature for two years after they left office but could lobby other agencies, including the executive branch. The bill bans lobbying for all branches for the two-year period.

"This reform puts us in the forefront in the country in ethics reform," said House Ethics and Elections Chairman Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton.

Independent analysts called it the most significant ethics legislation passed by Florida lawmakers in nearly four decades.

Dan Krassner, head of Integrity Florida, said Gaetz and Weatherford had "promised sweeping ethics and campaign finance reform, and they have delivered."

"After a 36-year drought, Florida lawmakers should be commended for advancing good government reforms in our state Capitol," Krassner said in a statement.

The campaign finance bill allows much larger donations to individual candidates but abolishes shadowy "committees of continuous existence" (CCEs) that have no cap on donations.

Supporters say the bill say brings more transparency to campaign donations. Candidates and committees will have to report their donations more often, and there will be fewer places to stash campaign money. But critics worry that it will allow large donors to have even more influence.

The legislation raises the cap any individual can contribute to candidates for governor, attorney general and other statewide offices from $500 to $3,000. Candidates for the Legislature and local offices such as the county commission or city council could collect $1,000 from an individual donor, up from $500.

And while the CCE groups would be abolished, lawmakers could still collect large checks through other political committees have no limit on what an individual donors can contribute.

The legislation also allows incumbents to roll over $20,000 in unspent contributions to their next political campaign.

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