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Leadership Funds Are Back!

In a mostly party line vote, the Republican-led House approved reviving leadership funds Thursday after a 20-year ban, giving House and Senate leaders unrestricted power over millions of dollars in campaign spending.

The measure (CS/HB 1207) is a top priority of incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and new Sen. John Thrasher, R-St. Augustine, who doubles as the state’s Republican Party chairman. The legislation is expected to win final passage next week in the Senate.

The House’s 73-42 approval came over fierce opposition from Democrats, who unsuccessfully pushed nine amendments aimed at limiting the amount of money that could be raised by the so-called affiliated political committees, demanding more financial disclosure, and requiring that more extensive details of credit card spending be revealed.

The credit card provision clearly stemmed from the financial woes within the Florida Republican Party, which led to the resignation of then-chairman Jim Greer – who was accused of mismanagement by party fundraisers. Rep. Ron Saunders, D-Key West, said the leadership fund push emerged from the GOP’s money problems, but disputed that rewriting state law was appropriate.

“The problem is they had a chair who liked to spend money,” Saunders said. “The way to solve that problem is not to change the law. It’s to change the chair. And they’ve done that. There’s no need for this law.”

But bill sponsor, Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, insisted it will bring “transparency and accountability” to fund-raising, by requiring leaders from both parties to disclose fund-raising and spending by the committees they control separate from the state parties – although on the same quarterly reporting schedule.

Haridopolos and other supporters have said de facto leadership funds already exist within the parties, and that the legislation will shed more light on campaign activities.

“It’s a shame we’re making them look like something they’re not,” said Rep. Jennifer Carroll, R-Green Cove Springs.

The legislation allows the affiliated political committees to raise and spend independently of the parties. But it limits to $50,000 the amount that a party and APC, combined, can pour into a legislative race.

The measure, which tracks the Senate’s CS/SB 880, also tightens 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, which left the free-spending organizations unregulated. More reporting and financial disclosure requirements will be restored, along with making ECOs fall under state regulation for such campaign activities as television advertising, direct-mail and telephone solicitations.

Some of the amendments proposed by Democrats were aimed largely at deriding Florida’s election system for being too flush with cash. Rep. Geraldine Thompson, D-Orlando, said bringing back leadership funds further endorsed a “pay-to-play system.”

“These slush funds, these leadership funds, were abolished in 1989 because they made those elected more accountable to the leadership than to the people,” Thompson said.

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