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    Banned in '80s, campaign tool might return

    They're called leadership funds, and some worry they'll give special interests a beeline to legislators. Advocates say they'll bring more accountability.

    By ADAM C. SMITH, Times Political Editor
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published April 26, 2003

    TALLAHASSEE - Derided by government watchdogs as slush funds and tools for political shakedowns, so-called leadership funds enabled ambitious state lawmakers to help elect candidates who could then help them.

    Lawmakers banned them in 1989 in a move hailed by reformers as a victory for good government.

    Now leaders in the state Senate are trying to resurrect the controversial fundraising tool - this time as a reform.

    Some see it as a ploy for lawmakers to better control big pots of money and evade new federal campaign finance restrictions. But it's also a sign of how campaign cash has so saturated Florida politics and government in recent years that other political veterans see this as a way to improve accountability.

    Banning leadership funds "was a cruel joke played on the people of Florida," said prominent lobbyist John French, who scoffs at the notion that it stopped legislative leaders from aggressively raising huge amounts of money from people and companies directly affected by legislative decisions.

    "It's like the town that has a strip joint, and the town council says it's going to close it down and paints over the strip joint sign," French said. "Well, you go in the door and there are still naked women in there."

    Indeed, the new debate over leadership funds has sparked some unusually frank admissions in Tallahassee about how money permeates the process.

    Last week, Common Cause Florida executive director Ben Wilcox stood before a state Senate committee to decry leadership funds for "allowing special interests to have a direct pipeline to the legislative leadership."

    State Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, politely suggested that Wilcox wake up and acknowledge reality.

    "It is a bit naive to believe that there are not direct connections between the moneys that are raised during the campaign cycle and outcomes in the legislative process," said Lee, who is pushing for leadership funds with Senate President Jim King's support.

    The bipartisan Senate Ethics and Elections Committee unanimously attached the idea to an elections bill many lawmakers see as must-pass legislation. On Friday, the full Senate preliminarily approved the bill.

    Republican state House leaders have shown little interest in reviving leadership funds, though Johnnie Byrd rose to speaker with the financial help of a similar campaign committee.

    But the Senate has added the measure to a bill that brings state election laws in line with federal law. Killing the bill could jeopardize more than $70-million in federal funds to upgrade Florida's election system.

    State political parties already accept unlimited "soft money" contributions, which they spend on ads, staff expenses and get-out-the-vote drives. The state GOP raised more than $55-million for the 2002 elections and Democrats raised nearly $28-million.

    With leadership funds, unlimited contributions could be raised to pay for TV ads and direct up to $50,000 to candidates.

    Among other things, leadership funds would pull some control of campaign money from the state parties. It also would make it easier for legislators to get involved in primaries.

    Lawmakers who want to build support to lead the House or Senate could pump a lot of money into a primary contest to win the loyalty of a lawmaker. The parties, however, usually try to avoid taking sides in their own primaries.

    Critics, including Democratic Party chairman Scott Maddox, suspect it's also an effort to sidestep the federal McCain-Feingold law banning the use of soft money in federal elections - including the upcoming presidential race in Florida. Don Simon, general counsel to Common Cause in Washington, agreed that the leadership funds could fall outside restrictions McCain-Feingold imposes on state parties.

    "We need less soft money, not more," said Maddox. "It would be a bidding war as to who can curry enough favor in various industries to get their people elected."

    Rep. Allan Bense, a Panama City Republican who's in line to become speaker in 2004, opposes the return of leadership funds and speculates that Senate Republican leaders want to play a stronger role in Republican primaries, shoring up their own base of support.

    "Those can be damaging for a party," Bense said.

    But with the Republican Party dominating state politics, the GOP primary is often the only real contest. And increasingly, the party is divided between staunch antitax conservatives, who dominate the House, and moderates who control the Senate.

    The leadership war chests technically died 14 years ago shortly after then-House Speaker Tom Gustafson raised a record $1.6-million. But lawmakers and lobbyists say the same activity continues today - in ways harder to track.

    "It's a sham, a shell game," said Lee, the Senate president-designate in 2004. He describes the state parties as "legal Laundromats for concealing the details of much of the political activity that occurs."

    The state GOP today knows exactly how much money House and Senate leaders raised, Lee said, and those leaders spend that money as they see fit. Reviving leadership funds would allow the public to better connect the dots between money raised by legislative leaders and legislation that passes.

    "A lot of members don't want this to happen, because they don't want a light shown on this stuff," said Lee.

    State party accounts aren't the only way for legislative leaders to jump into legislative campaigns.

    Increasingly, interest groups create mysterious independent organizations with minimal disclosure requirements. Those groups can pay for attack ads against candidates out of favor with the legislative leaders whose support those groups need.

    Or legislative leaders create their own political committees to raise money from interest groups to help elect allies. Byrd used the Committee for Responsible Government to raise and spend more than $280,000 since 1999.

    Byrd spent much of the money to travel the state building support among House members, who then supported his bid to be speaker. Money also was used for campaign research.

    Byrd's committee can accept unlimited donations, but unlike a leadership fund, is barred from giving more than $500 to individual candidates.

    - Times staff writer Steve Bousquet contributed to this report.

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