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Columns

$500 cap remains an inside joke to many

By STEVE BOUSQUET
Published March 31, 2007


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Pass a law, and people will find a way to get around it. Including the legislators who write the laws.

The law says no legislator can take a campaign contribution greater than $500. But that's chump change in this era of million-dollar campaigns for part-time legislative seats that pay less than $30,000 a year.

To evade the $500 cap, some lawmakers control committees that are exempt from the $500 limit. They're called 527s, so named for the section of the IRS code that covers them, or in state law, CCEs, committees of continuous existence.

Living in a regulatory netherworld, these lawmaker-controlled committees solicit checks of up to $25,000 from lobbyists or businesses with agendas in the Legislature. Phone companies, cable TV, parimutuels - you name it.

Individual legislators decide how the money is spent. They dish it out in campaign contributions and for expenses ranging from dinner tabs to political consultants, making the committees virtual slush funds.

The Senate gets credit for requiring every lawmaker with a committee to create a Web site and promptly report all donations and expenses. The House quietly eliminated that requirement for its members in November.

Legislators who control these committees should ask themselves a question: Do they honestly think their constituents believe they can't be influenced by a $10,000 check?

Lawmakers who control committees include Sen. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey; Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton; Sen. JD Alexander, R-Lake Wales; Sen. Jeff Atwater, R-Palm Beach Gardens; Rep. Charlie Dean, R-Inverness; Rep. Curtis Richardson, D-Tallahassee; and Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff, R-Fort Lauderdale.

Bogdanoff's committee, called Creating Possibilities, was formed Feb. 7. Eight donors poured in $20,000 by March 5, the day before the session began. Realtors, who have a vested interest in the property tax debate, gave $5,000. Two insurance companies owned by Associated Industries of Florida donated a combined $5,000.

Now along come Sen. Charlie Justice, D-St. Petersburg, and Rep. Keith Fitzgerald, D-Sarasota, with the idea of banning lawmaker-controlled fundraising committees.

"The way all this money is flying around, it just allows people to legally evade limits on contributions," Fitzgerald said. "And it allows influence in ways people don't want."

Their bills have been buried in the legislative graveyard.

Justice's bill went to the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, whose chairman, Lee Constantine, R-Altamonte Springs, has one such fund, called Citizens for a Greater Florida.

"There are a lot of issues out there that people are concerned about," Constantine said. "We'll look at that bill."

At the last meeting of Constantine's panel, two bills were heard. The week before, three.

Fitzgerald had similar luck. His bill HB 1149 was shipped to the House Ethics & Elections Committee, chaired by Rep. Pat Patterson, R-DeLand. The committee has not met since March 8 and is not scheduled to meet again this session.

"We never got to it," Patterson said of Fitzgerald's bill. "There were about nine bills out there I didn't particularly care for."

Lawmakers needn't worry. Their lucrative fundraising sideline is safe for another year.

Steve Bousquet can be reached at bousquet@sptimes.com or (850) 224-7263.

[Last modified March 31, 2007, 06:37:44]


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