Campaign finance, elections bills pass committee

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It's a tight race and that makes election preparation and protection of our votes even more important.

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - A pair of bills overhauling campaigns and the elections that followed them passed through a key House committee Thursday, with a party-line vote for one and unanimous support for the other.

The sharpest clashes at the House Appropriations Committee came over a measure (HB 569) that would abolish "committees of continuous existence," or CCEs -- outside groups often tied to legislators that are at least nominally independent of campaigns. Those groups are responsible for sometimes fierce attack ads, and many have been used to move money around to where it is almost untraceable.

In return, the bill would raise the limit on individual contributions to a candidate from $500 per person to $10,000 per person.

Supporters of the bill say it will increase transparency in the process by giving candidates greater control over their message and making them accountable for campaign spending.

"We'll see who is giving to what so that we know whose message this is," said Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala.

But Democrats hammered the change as something that would not solve the issue of money sloshing around in the electoral process.

"I think, unfortunately, that the end result will be the same game with a different name," said Rep. Mark Pafford, D-West Palm Beach. "We're not really addressing the volume of cash that is dumped into campaigns."

An easier sell has been the elections reform bill (HB 7013), which would allow local supervisors of elections an opportunity to expand early voting days. It would also limit some ballot summaries by lawmakers in an effort to cut back on lengthy lines that had some voters casting ballots in Florida after the presidential election had already been called nationwide for President Barack Obama.

"By passing this piece of legislation today, the Appropriations Committee took an important next step in preventing the problems we saw during the 2012 election from occurring again in the future," Rep. Jim Boyd, the Bradenton Republican who sponsored the bill, said in a statement. "These proposed reforms will help ensure Florida voters have ample opportunity to cast a ballot and participate in fair and efficient elections."

Democrats tried to amend the bill to further roll back HB 1355, a measure the GOP pushed through two years ago to make a slew of changes to the voting process, including cutting back the number of early voting days. They did win a few minor changes, including increasing the minimum number of early voting hours that supervisors must offer each day from six hours to eight.

The bill passed the panel unanimously.

"This does not take us back to pre-1355, but I can assure you the voters of this state will agree that this is better," said Rep. Hazelle Rogers, D-Lauderdale Lakes.

In a meeting with reporters later Thursday, House Minority Leader Perry Thurston, D-Plantation, praised the elections bill as a "shining example" of the parties working together on legislation.

"Certainly [Florida voters] would say that this is going to provide the access, and people are going to know that their votes will be counted," he said.

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