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Leadership Funds Ready for an Encore

House and Senate leaders would gain new authority over millions of dollars in campaign cash under legislation approved on Tuesday by a Senate Ethics and Elections Committee divided along party lines.

The legislation (CS/SB 880) revives so-called leadership funds, outlawed by lawmakers 20 years ago, but whose re-emergence has been fueled by accusations of financial mismanagement within the Florida Republican Party under ousted chairman Jim Greer.

The measure, which tracks a similar bill (HB 1207), advancing in the House, would tighten restrictions on electioneering communications organizations (ECOs) by restoring many of the provisions included in an earlier law ruled unconstitutional last year by a federal judge.

Along with requiring these committees to register and disclose their contributions and spending with the state, the measure also expands the definition of such organizations to include those that provide direct-mail and telephone campaign activities, along with television, radio and print advertising.

“This will provide much greater transparency,” said Sen. J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, newly appointed chairman of the Ethics and Elections panel. Alexander succeeded Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who stepped down from the chairmanship after he was elected last month as leader of the Florida Republican Party.

Thrasher, who remains on the committee, joined the chorus of lawmakers saying that stricter oversight of ECOs are needed, saying that such currently shadowy organizations spent $2.5 million against him in his special election campaign last fall for an open Senate seat. Most of these organizations were allied with Florida trial lawyers, who opposed the election of Thrasher, a former House speaker who this spring has revived his steady advocacy for stricter lawsuit limits.

Democrats on the committee said they supported the effort to renew oversight of the ECOs. But the legislation cleared on an 8-3 vote only with all the Democrats on the panel opposed – chiefly because of the leadership fund portion of the bill – which adds new power to each party’s top lawmakers.

Dubbing such funds “affiliated party committees,” the measure would allow legislative leaders to skirt current requirements on their own political funds which force them to report contributions and spending within 10 days of the action. Because the new funds would be housed within the state party accounts, they would be subject only to quarterly reporting standards.

The legislation also adds potency to these leadership funds by doubling to $50,000 the amount a party can pour into a legislative race in a campaign’s closing month. Leaders’ accounts also would be freed from current limits that top contributions to legislative candidates from lawmakers’ political committees to $500 per election.

“They were banned because leadership funds were a way for lobbyists and others to have influence over legislative leaders,” said Sen. Nan Rich, D-Weston. “I think it was a good thing they were eliminated, and I don’t think it’s a good thing that the suggestion is they are put back.

“There’s a difference between one person controlling the dollars, and the party controlling the dollars,” Rich said.

Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, said, “A party leader is not elected. But imagine the influence you’re going to have if you’re giving this kind of money directly to a legislative leader.”

Still, Alexander and other supporters said that de facto leadership funds already exist within the parties. Evidence of that came when the presumptive incoming leaders of both chambers, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, withdrew a combined $949,500 from party coffers in January and tucked the cash into political committees they control.

Both acknowledged they wanted to exert more control over campaign contributions intended to finance House and Senate races, but which the two leaders feared Greer was using to patch holes in the party budget.

Alexander said the proposed changes will allow the public to better track spending and contributions since it will segregate leaders’ reports.

“I think you are very clearly adding additional transparency to the funds raised in the parties,” Alexander said.

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