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Panel rejects special session fundraising ban

Published June 17, 2003

TALLAHASSEE - Republicans on Monday rejected a proposal to ban political fundraising during special sessions, but some said they might consider it in the future.

Rep. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, on Monday proposed extending an existing ban on fundraising during regular sessions to special sessions.

"I thought the purpose of coming to Tallahassee was to help patients and doctors, not collect checks outside the Capitol," Justice said after Republicans on the House Rules Committee voted 15 to 11 to reject the measure.

Justice said Democrats had discussed the proposal the past few weeks but decided to act after reading a St. Petersburg Times report on the avalanche of fundraisers during the special session that began Monday.

Twenty fundraisers are scheduled by 19 Republican House members. Many of them are co-sponsored by House Speaker Johnnie Byrd, R-Plant City, and speaker-designate Allan Bense, R-Panama City, while others are planned by health care lobbyists interested in medical malpractice legislation being considered this week.

All of the fundraisers are early evening events at bars, clubs and offices a couple of blocks from the Capitol.

"I didn't realize how many of them were actually going on," Justice said. "If we don't allow it in regular session to avoid the appearance of impropriety, then we should not do it in special session either."

Byrd said he had not seen Justice's proposal and would have to "get the sense of the members" before considering it. He said fundraising is an expression of free speech and could not decide "off the cuff."

House Majority Leader Marco Rubio called the measure an "ambush" by Democrats seeking to score points with voters long after the fundraisers had been arranged.

House Minority Leader Doug Wiles, D-St. Augustine, wondered whether the special session was "scheduled around fundraisers."

"If we were truly committed to helping patients and doctors by solving the state's growing malpractice crisis, then we would not be shutting our doors at 6 p.m. so Republican incumbents can receive contributions for their next campaign," Wiles said.

No senators have scheduled fundraisers in Tallahassee this week, said Senate President Jim King.

Sen. Ken Pruitt, R-Port St. Lucie, said voters make no distinction between regular or special sessions and lawmakers shouldn't either.

Bense and Rep. Dudley Goodlette, R-Naples, said they would consider a ban if it were reviewed first by the House Ethics and Elections Committee. Both voted against considering it Monday.

"I would probably support a bill that would ban fundraising in special sessions, but it would be the speaker's call," Bense said. "I would certainly hope a contribution wouldn't influence how they'll vote on medical malpractice."

A spokeswoman for Republican Gov. Jeb Bush said Monday he agrees with the House Democrats. "Gov. Bush does not believe there should be any fundraising during the special session," said Alia Faraj.

Raising money when the Legislature is in session was banned by the House and Senate in the mid 1990s after some lawmakers summoned lobbyists into their Capitol offices seeking financial support for campaigns while important bills were pending.

- Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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