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GOP takes hard line on soft money

A House panel rejects the Democrats' demand for an outright ban on political committees exempt from the $500 contribution limit.

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published March 30, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - The session's first partisan showdown over how to curb the influence of special interest money in the Legislature took place Wednesday.

Republicans won. Democrats said the people lost.

The GOP majority on the House Ethics & Elections Committee rejected the Democrats' demand for an outright ban on lawmaker-controlled political committees that are exempt from the $500 contribution limit.

Instead, Republicans passed their alternative that adds disclosure requirements for contributions to certain groups that run last-minute campaign ads. The GOP's version also requires those groups to separately disclose donations greater than $10,000 from shadowy committees known as 527s, now regulated only by the IRS.

Under the Republican counterproposal, lawmakers could continue to collect donations in unlimited amounts. The unrestricted contributions, commonly known as soft money, are given by interest groups to both parties, and to committees created by individual lawmakers to pay for a vast array of political expenses.

Rep. Ron Reagan, R-Bradenton, defended the Republican approach, saying the Democrats' proposal undermined the public's right to participate in the political process.

"We have to be cautious and careful about telling somebody, "You can't have free speech,"' said Reagan, chairman of the Ethics & Elections Committee that approved the measure, 9-2, with one Democrat joining eight Republicans.

Earlier, the committee rejected the Democrats' outright ban on the committees on an unrecorded voice vote. The GOP also rejected a Democratic amendment that would have made violation of the Republicans' bill a felony punishable by a prison sentence.

Dozens of lawmakers have set up funds known as 527s, or CCEs, and solicit checks of $25,000 or more from lobbyists and businesses for polls, consultants, travel, meals, cell phones and other political overhead.

Under state law, there are few restrictions on how the money is spent. The funds are in addition to lawmakers' own re-election committees that are bound by the $500 limit.

Five Tampa Bay area lawmakers have such committees: Senate President Tom Lee, R-Valrico; Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey; Sen. Nancy Argenziano, R-Dunnellon; Sen. Paula Dockery, R-Lakeland; and Rep. Leslie Waters, R-Seminole.

Rep. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, a principal author of the soft-money limits, said both parties are guilty of circumventing the campaign finance laws, and it's time to stop it.

"If we all agree to disarm, no one is harmed and only the public is advantaged," Gelber said. "Unlimited campaign contributions are just plain wrong."

Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Dania Beach, a committee member, said: "We've got to get money out of the hands of politicians."

Republicans countered that "transparency" or the full, timely disclosure of contributions is sufficient. "Anything we can do to create more disclosure is a good thing," said Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale.

It remains to be seen whether the Republican-controlled Senate will embrace the House GOP approach or favor a ban on the lawmaker-controlled committees. Senate President Lee has endorsed the Democrats' approach.

Steve Bousquet is at 850 224-7263 or bousquet@sptimes.com

[Last modified March 30, 2006, 02:26:58]


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