TALLAHASSEE -- Campaign contribution limits would soar from $500 to $5,000 for statewide candidates and $3,000 for legislative and other candidates under a wide-ranging bill passed by the House on Friday.
The bill (HB 569) would also eliminate committees of continuous existence, or CCEs, which critics say have been used as slush funds for legislators. It also would require candidates to report donations more frequently and would allow lawmakers to keep up to $20,000 for their re-election campaigns. Current law requires candidates to close down their accounts after an election.
Republicans praised the bill as giving the public more knowledge about who is supporting campaigns and how the money is being spent,
saying millions of dollars are filtered through "shadowy" committees. Democrats said the measure is merely an effort to protect incumbents.
"In the world that I live, bringing tens of millions of dollars out of the shadows and into the sunshine is a clear example of transparency. If you have been in this process long enough, you have seen the hide and seek of the campaign dollar. Let's all know where the money comes from, and let's all know where the money is spent, said Rep. Ronald Renuart, R-Ponte Vedra Beach.
Democrats said the higher campaign limits and the rollover accounts will make it harder for candidates to challenge incumbents.
"I can't in good conscience support this blatant, brazen, obvious incumbent protection plan," said Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-St. Petersburg. "A six times increase in campaign contributions in our legislative races is ridiculous."
Rep. Travis Cummings, R-Orange Park, argued that a challenger would have the ability to raise more money under the proposed limits.
"Florida campaign contribution limits are very antiquated. It's been 20 years since they've been adjusted," Cummings said. "Rather than incumbency protection, this bill has the potential to empower a challenger by making it possible for them to raise the money to challenge an incumbent."
Republican Gov. Rick Scott agrees with the Democrats' argument. "Gov. Scott does not support the campaign contribution increases in the House bill. Significantly increasing these limits concentrates more power to the already powerful and hurts the ability of individual citizens to be a part of the process," said Scott spokeswoman Melissa Sellers.
Scott spent more than $70 million of his and his family's money to get elected -- far more than the $17.5 million his opponent, Democrat Alex Sink, raised while being limited by $500 campaign contribution limits. Scott plans to run for re-election next year and the higher contribution levels would allow a Democratic challenger to raise more money.
House Speaker Will Weatherford was surprised to hear Scott's position.
"Every time I've met with him he's told me he's supportive of our bill, so that's news to me," said Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel. "This is a transparency bill. I know the governor is supportive of transparency. I think when he sees the wisdom of what we are trying to accomplish he will come around."
Democrats also argued that lawmakers shouldn't be allowed to carry over any money for their re-election campaigns. Current law requires candidates to close down their campaign accounts after an election.