Campaign finance bill changes, ethic reform in crossfire

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A Senate change to a campaign finance bill that is a top priority of House Speaker Will Weatherford threatens to undermine both the fundraising proposal and ethics reform, a key senator said Tuesday.

The Senate Rules Committee unanimously agreed Tuesday to remove from its bill a proposed increase in contribution limits for candidates for statewide and some judicial offices. That provision was already tamer than the boost to caps on donations sought by the House and is considered a centerpiece of the legislation.

A few hours later, a House committee pulled the ethics reform bill, the signature piece of Senate President Don Gaetz's agenda, from its calendar. The bill's sponsor said lawmakers needed more time to study a slate of amendments filed by Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.

The back and forth over the two bills raised the prospects of tension between the two chambers over leadership priorities, even as Gaetz, R-Niceville, and Weatherford have worked to present a united front after two years of sometimes harsh standoffs between the House and the Senate.

It began in the Senate Rules Committee, when the panel adopted an amendment by Sen. Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, to keep the maximum amount that each contributor can give a candidate for each election at $500. The House bill (HB 569) would raise those limits to $5,000 for statewide candidates and $3,000 for local and legislative candidates; the Senate bill (SB 1382) already had more modest figures of $3,000 and $500, respectively.

But Sen. Jack Latvala, the Clearwater Republican sponsoring his chamber's version, has been visibly uncomfortable with raising the limits. And Gov. Rick Scott has also opposed the move.

"If the governor has the final word on it, and if he's not going to sign a bill that changes that, then why pursue it any longer?" Latvala told reporters after the meeting. "Let's get down to the other issues that we can resolve."

The bill would also do away with "committees of continuous existence," which have been blamed for making political money almost untraceable, while allowing some other political committees to benefit from the unlimited donations that CCEs can currently accept. And it would increase reporting requirements for many political committees and campaigns.

Latvala said the governor's statements against raising the limits have "probably sapped the energy out of passing a campaign finance bill this session." But he also noted that derailing Weatherford's initiative could have ramifications for the ethics package, which the Senate passed on the session's first day.

"They wanted these changes in campaign finance in return for doing some fairly sensible, easy-to-understand things on ethics, and that's a shame," Latvala said.

Hours later, the House version of ethics reform (HB 7131) was temporarily shelved by the State Affairs Committee, which wrapped up a meeting that had been scheduled to run for four hours in about 25 minutes.

But Rep. Jim Boyd, R-Bradenton, said the delay on the ethics bill had nothing to do with the Senate's move on campaign finance limits. He said lawmakers instead needed more time to consider about a dozen amendments offered by Fasano.

Boyd, who chairs the House Ethics and Elections Subcommittee and sponsored the ethics bill, also continued to back the House proposal on fundraising limits.

"We felt like our campaign finance was the right thing to do, and I still think it was," Boyd said. "Of course, there's always room for negotiation as we move forward."

And Weatherford took to Twitter to shrug off the idea that the bill was in trouble.

"Campaign finance dead?" he tweeted in response to a reporter. "Session has only just begun. :)"

A spokesman for Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, did not return an email seeking comment from the speaker on the Senate's changes or whether he might accept a bill without increasing contribution limits.

The Senate Rules Committee also approved on party lines a bill (SB 600) that would make several changes to Florida's elections law in the wake of the 2012 presidential elections, which featured snafus that kept some voters from casting ballots until after President Barack Obama had been declared the winner nationally.

While the bill passed the House almost unanimously, Senate Democrats have bitterly opposed the measure, saying it falls short by, for example, giving elections supervisors discretion about additional days of early voting.

But voting-rights groups have been more circumspect in their criticisms. In a conference call by the League of Women Voters, President Deirdre Macnab said the group gave the bill a "B" because it didn't make it easier for voters to change their addresses at the polls and increased requirements for voting by absentee.

"We believe the state of Florida deserves an A-plus elections reform bill," Macnab said. "We must put these issues behind us."

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