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Crist Bucks GOP Lawmakers, Vetoes Leadership Funds

Gov. Charlie Crist defied the incoming legislative leaders of his own Republican Party by vetoing a measure Tuesday that would have given them unbridled control of millions of dollars in campaign cash.

Citing the Legislature’s decision to ban so-called leadership funds in 1989, Crist indicated that time and the present political atmosphere provided no reason for lifting the prohibition.

“While I commend the sponsors of this bill for their effort to bring more transparency and accountability in their attempt to revive leadership funds, I reject the notion that affiliated party committees, or leadership funds, will benefit our state,” Crist wrote in his veto of the measure, his first of the 2010 session.

The effort to revive leadership funds was heavily promoted by Senate President-designate Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, who would have had unfettered authority over campaign contributions they raise for the election of House and Senate candidates.

Their Democratic counterparts, Rep. Ron Saunders of Key West and Sen. Nan Rich of Weston, had argued against re-establishment of leadership funds, saying it was improper to give lawmakers another method for extracting campaign contributions from the corporations and lobbyists whose business interests they shape through legislation.

Crist echoed a similar concern in his veto, reflecting on a system legislators ditched 21 years ago. “These accounts allowed legislative leaders to solicit and accept campaign contributions during the legislative session from lobbyists and interest groups outside of the public view,” Crist concluded.

Reaction from wounded leaders was swift.

But some sought to deflect criticism of leadership funds by pointing out the legislation also re-enacted state regulation of shadowy political committees that typically air some of the harshest television advertising and direct-mail campaigns of an election season.

“The Governor is one-hundred percent wrong,” said Senate Majority Leader Alex Diaz de la Portilla, R-Miami. “The legislation...would have brought new reporting requirements to electioneering communication organizations (ECOs). This provision would have guaranteed accountability when outside intererests participate in elections.”

Newly elected Florida Republican Party Chairman John Thrasher, a St. Augustine Republican state senator, was another key advocate for the leadership fund bill (HB 1207), saying the measure was needed to blunt the kind of free-swinging advertising that was used against him during a special Senate election last fall.

Organizations tied to Florida trial lawyers were behind the effort to defeat Thrasher with sharp-edged advertising that challenged his ethics and spending during his 1998-99 term as House speaker.

But perhaps the biggest symbol of the push for leadership funds was the man Thrasher succeeded as Florida Republican chairman, ousted party leader Jim Greer. Haridopolos and Cannon withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars they had raised for the state party late last year amid concerns that Greer was using the money to patch budget holes in the party’s account.

Greer, now the subject of a state criminal investigation, has denied any wrongdoing through his lawyer. But Crist on Monday also asked a federal prosecutor to examine Greer’s fund-raising and spending practices at the party after an audit revealed he had created a company that received 10 percent of major donations made to the party.

“I am deeply disappointed in the action taken today by Gov. Crist to veto this common-sense measure,” said Rep. Seth McKeel, R-Lakeland, who sponsored the House measure. “This bill was carefully crafted to usher in a new era of transparency and openness to the political fund-raising process by making political fund-raising information easily accessible to the general public.”

McKeel also echoed a frequent defense of the legislation, saying that it effectively codified an existing practice of party leaders who maintained control of campaign cash they raised. Under the bill, leaders would have been required to make public quarterly reports of their fund-raising and spending – activities that currently are rolled into campaign finance disclosures made by the state parties.

“We all know that legislative leaders have long raised money for their respective political parties, but the current system is flawed because citizens have no easy way to see how much money has been raised or see which interests gave them money,” McKeel said.

In his veto, Crist welcomed lawmakers to renew work in the session’s closing weeks on a measure that would provide stricter regulations on electioneering committees. But none of the lawmakers bristling at Crist’s veto offered such assurances.

But a Democratic senator, Dan Gelber, who had written Crist urging a veto, applauded the governor’s action.

“It was the right thing to do,” said Gelber, D-Miami Beach. “Floridians are tired of the shenanigans that are increasingly defining state government. The bill was a step in the wrong direction and I think Gov. Crist recognized so.

“We need to put an end to cash register politics, not enable it,” he added.

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