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Speculation surrounds campaign finance reform

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Some Democrats saw campaign finance reform passed by the Legislature this year as helpful in their bid to defeat Gov. Rick Scott but, in fact, it could help Republicans more, campaign finance experts and Florida political figures say.

Meanwhile, watchdogs who track money in politics differ sharply over whether the reform bill will do what its proponents claim — lessen the influence of special interest money in politics.

“It’s just lip service to real reform,” said Brad Ashwell, who tracked the bill for Common Cause, the citizens lobbying group. “The influence of special interest dollars on the political system, it doesn’t affect that.”

Dan Krassner of the government watchdog Integrity Florida sees it differently.

“In general, it accomplished the goal of increasing transparency,” Krassner said. “The campaign finance system is still broken and out of balance, but the law begins to make it more transparent and accountable.”

Here are some of the biggest changes in the bill:

It increases campaign contributions limit from $500 for all offices to $3,000 for statewide offices — governor, Cabinet members and Supreme Court justices — and $1,000 for other local and state races. Donors can give the maximum for the primary and again for the general election.

It ends “committees of continued existence,” or CCE’s, derided as slush funds controlled by legislators. It creates a new category of political committees that can receive unlimited contributions — but must report their expenditures and donors in detail.

It increases reporting requirements for campaigns and the new political committees from quarterly to monthly, and even more frequently as election day nears.

The increase in contribution limits is expected to accelerate campaigning.

Advocates said the old limits, imposed in 1992 under the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, were obsolete and forced candidates to spend too much time raising money. They were among the nation’s lowest.

“It’s helpful and more realistic,” said former state finance chief Alex Sink of Tampa, the Democrat who ran unsuccessfully against Republican Scott in 2010. “The cost of campaigns has done nothing but increase tremendously. It’s $1.5 million a week to be on television.”

Raising the estimated $20 million it takes to run a statewide campaign in $500 chunks is a daunting chore, Sink and others have said.

Krassner said “the concept of no limits but better disclosure” for political contributions is an idea supported by many experts on the left and the right. They argue that money will find its way into politics through independent political committees and independent expenditures that help candidates regardless of limits on contributions to campaigns.

In Florida, which allows corporations to give political contributions, lower limits “give corporations an unfair advantage over people,” because a single individual often controls several companies and can give the maximum from each, he said.

But Ashwell said lower limits “do some good to constrain the flow of money. The amount of democracy you have shouldn’t be contingent on how much you can buy.”

Some Democrats have speculated increased limits might help their candidate compete with the wealthy Scott if he pays for his own re-election campaign. In 2010, his first bid for public office, he spent $73 million of his own money to win election.

Scott opposed increasing the limits this year, but nonetheless signed the bill, a top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford of Wesley Chapel.

But Scott backers have said this year they hope to raise and spend up to $100 million without any money from Scott.

And, some experts said, a maximum election cycle contribution of $6,000 — the primary and general election combined — could help Republicans, who have more middle-range donors.

“I don’t know that there is the base of Democratic donors who can write four-figure checks,” said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn, a Democrat. “In that middle area, $1,000 to $2,000, is where Democrats would struggle.”

Corporations, the upper middle class and the wealthy are more able to write checks for $6,000 and more likely to give to Republicans, said Democratic fundraiser Mitch Berger.

He said allowing corporate donations, which the new law doesn’t affect, is the most serious problem in Florida campaign finance.

Tampa lawyer and Democratic fundraiser Tom Scarritt said Democrats “always have more contributors but smaller totals.”

In 2010, Sink raised $11.4 million from 47,043 donors. Spending by the party added another $6 million to her campaign.

About 14,000 of her contributions were for $500, and 2,006 donors gave her the maximum $1,000 in two $500 donations.

How many of those $1,000 donors would write checks for the new maximum, $6,000?

“I couldn’t even speculate; not a large percentage, I’d say,” said Sink, who is contemplating running again.

Berger, a prominent Fort Lauderdale lawyer and one of those double-$500 donors, said he definitely would. But Buckhorn, who also gave the maximum, said, “It would depend on the candidate and the circumstances.”

“I think I would do it again at the higher rates for a candidate that I have that much personal affection for as Alex Sink, but not in a less-significant race, or one where I don’t know the person as well. My wife would kill me.”

By comparison, in his last race as a Republican, the 2006 governor’s race, former Gov. Charlie Crist raised money in larger chunks. More than two-thirds of his 44,000 contributions were for $500.

It’s unlikely any candidate could pull in that many donations at the new $3,000 limit, said Republican campaign finance expert Brecht Heuchan.

“You can raise the limits, but it’s the same pool of donors — the money probably just won’t be there.”

The campaign finance bill passed on a party line vote in the House, with Democrats opposed.

“There’s already too much money circulating in the elections process,” said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach, who voted no. “The bill simply allows more money into the process.”

But Meredith McGhehee of the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center said the bill could have both good and bad effects.

“If the purpose of limits is to deal with corruption and the appearance of corruption, then you need a system in which candidates have at least some power to respond,” including raising more money, she said.

But only half of one percent of the population ever donates to a candidate, she said.

Raising the limits also means “further skewing the demographic that’s going to be able to afford that money. Who is it that can afford to give a politician $3,000?”


wmarch@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7761

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