It's time to dole out campaign leftovers
By ED QUIOCO, Times Staff Writer
The ballots have long since been counted, but for some candidates, there is still election work to be done.
Politicians who ran in the November general election have until February to dispose of any leftover campaign money they raised but did not spend.
As one candidate in Largo recently discovered, simply withdrawing from a state legislative race and later rolling contributions over into a local campaign is not an option.
The legal options do include giving leftover campaign money to charity or giving it back to contributors.
State Rep. Gus Bilirakis, R-Palm Harbor, raised about $118,000 before the Nov. 5 election. He spent all but about $4,800, mostly on campaign staff, advertising and office equipment. State law requires politicians to close out their campaign accounts and to bring the balances to zero.
Bilirakis said he will spend $400 to pay for thank you cards for his supporters and the rest will go to local charities.
"It's a nice feeling," Bilirakis said. "It's just wonderful because you help out the local area and there are a lot of charities to choose from."
Candidates have 90 days from the election to zero out their campaign accounts, said Frank Gould, election specialist at the Pinellas County Supervisor of Elections Office. They have to file a report that details how the remaining money was used.
In addition to donating surplus funds to charity, candidates can return what's left to their contributors, give it to their political party or transfer the money to an account set up for their public office. But there are limits as to how much politicians can give to their political party and how much they can transfer to an office account.
Many politicians say their preferred choice is to give the money to nonprofit organizations.
"I prefer to give it to charity," Bilirakis said. "I just thought that would be a better thing to do."
Bilirakis said he will donate $3,000 to a youth center being built by the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Tarpon Springs. The rest will go to local charities such as the Pinellas Crisis Pregnancy Center and the Hospice of the Florida Suncoast.
"I'm very active in my church and this youth center is very important to the community," Bilirakis said. "It will help the whole area."
Other North Pinellas politicians who faced tough races said their campaign accounts were depleted just fending off their opponents.
State Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey, whose district also includes a portion of North Pinellas, said in the past he has given as much as $30,000 in surplus funds to charities, but this year he probably will have less than $2,000 left after he settles all of his campaign bills.
"I'm saddened by that, but my hope is to be able to make it up to them someday now that I'm in the state Senate," Fasano said. "Any time we can help nonprofit groups who get very little assistance from the state or federal government, I think that's a plus for everyone."
He ran in a newly carved district that stretched from North Pinellas through western Pasco, Hernando and Citrus counties. That meant he had to spend much of the $422,000 he raised to reach out to more voters, especially since the Democratic Party got involved in this race, the Republican lawmaker said.
"We had to spend almost all of the money that we collected," Fasano said.
Other politicians say what's left after the election will pay for last-minute items such as telephone bills for their campaign offices, printing costs and fees for political consultants that they hired.
State Rep. Frank Farkas, R-St. Petersburg, spent most of the $330,000 he raised. He has about $5,000 left over but most of that will go toward paying campaign bills.
In the past, Farkas has given his surplus funds to local charities, said Chris Davis, Farkas' campaign manager.
"Unfortunately, we can't say we are giving any money this time," Davis said. "He would have liked to have done that."
State Rep. Leslie Waters, R-Seminole, decisively defeated her opponent for her third term of office. After paying for a victory celebration and other bills, her surplus campaign funds will go to local charities, she said.
She plans to adopt a class at an elementary school in her district and give some money to a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Pinellas Park, a mental health organization and a home for teenage girls, the Pinellas County Urban League and Junior Achievement of West Central Florida.
"Some good organizations are getting a surprise check in the mail to either use for staff recognition, their core projects, holiday celebrations or certainly toward 2003 goals," Waters said.
For the most part, candidates with easy victories had the most surplus funds after the November election.
Pinellas County Commissioner Susan Latvala, who faced no challenger on the ballot and easily defeated a few write-in candidates, spent only a third of the $41,000 she raised for her campaign.
What's left will likely be transferred to an office account and given back to contributors, Latvala said. State law allows her to transfer $10,000 into an office account, which Latvala said she will use to pay for tickets to functions she has to attend during her term, mailings to constituents and holiday greetings.
The rest, she said, will be given back to her contributors.
"If I give it back, then they might be more inclined to give it again," Latvala said. "I just think it's the right thing to do. It's given in the spirit and in support of a good campaign. If it's not used for that, then it should be given back."
-- Ed Quioco can be reached at (727) 445-4185 or firstname.lastname@example.org .
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