tampabay.com

Senate plan restricts lavish political donations

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published April 26, 2006


TALLAHASSEE - Legislators' lavish meals, plane travel and hotel bills paid for with large campaign donations would be banned in most cases under a bill quickly gaining momentum in the Senate.

The bill falls short of the blanket ban on lawmaker-controlled slush funds that Senate President Tom Lee sought, to address what he calls a "horrible perception" of Florida's Legislature. Lee enlisted constitutional expert Barry Richard, one of President Bush's legal advisers in the Florida vote recount, to get a bill that could survive constitutional challenge.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Sen. Dan Webster, R-Winter Garden, approved the bill (SB 716) unanimously, even though two Democrats criticized a pile of amendments and tried to postpone it from taking effect until after the November election.

Under the bill, lawmakers could still have separate fundraising committees that can collect so-called soft-money donations well in excess of the $500 limit that applies to legislators' re-election campaigns.

But if a lawmaker controlled a committee or a committee paid any expenses for a candidate in the latest two-year election cycle, the committee couldn't accept more than $500 from a donor. That would effectively destroy the committee's appeal as a magnet for big-money contributions.

Since Dec. 8, when a sweeping ban on lobbyist-paid gifts took effect, more than 20 legislators have raised at least $314,000 in unrestricted donations from hospitals, sugar growers, developers, racetracks and others.

The money has flowed to committees known as 527s (for a provision in the tax code), or their state equivalents, known as CCEs (committees of continuous existence) or ECOs (electioneering communication organizations). The bill also puts additional disclosure requirements on 527s and ECOs.

Sen. Walter "Skip" Campbell, D-Fort Lauderdale, a candidate for attorney general, said he feared the bill would favor candidates with existing slush funds while barring new candidates from forming them. But Sen. Bill Posey, R-Rockledge, the bill's sponsor, rejected that. "I want to clean this up as soon as I can," Posey said.

House Speaker Allan Bense, R-Panama City, said he would seriously consider Lee's latest proposal. House leaders have been in favor of allowing the committees to stay in operation with all donations quickly disclosed on Web sites.

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