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GOP Primary for Governor Could Signal End of Public Financing

Multi-millionaire businessman Rick Scott is spending heavily from his personal funds to wage a campaign for Governor.

Florida voters are being asked whether to continue the state’s public campaign finance system, but even longtime supporters now acknowledge the 23-year-old measure may be irretrievably broken.

Want proof, they say?

Look at this year’s Republican primary for governor.

Multi-millionaire Rick Scott doesn’t support public financing, and has already spent $16 million of his own money to rocket to the lead in opinion polls. His rival, Bill McCollum, may be able to keep pace only by drawing taxpayer dollars through the public finance system.

The system is intended to limit spending – and imposes a $24.9 million ceiling on the governor’s race. But both men are diluting the effect of this cap by deploying big money political committees spending millions on television ads, mailers and get-out-the-vote efforts on their behalf.

A statewide television ad began airing Friday that blisters McCollum on abortion and immigration. The $1.4 million buy circumvents state campaign spending limits because it is paid for by a political committee Scott formed called Let’s Get To Work.

But Scott is only repaying McCollum with the outside firepower. A pair of shadowy committees supporting McCollum already aired $4 million worth of TV spots attacking Scott.

“The campaign finance law really has become so messed up, the question is whether we should even try to save it,” said Ben Wilcox, a board member with Common Cause Florida, which has long supported the state public finance system.

“The system has been so manipulated, it doesn’t look much like it was intended to look,” he added.

Republican legislators have steadily derided Florida’s system, with former Gov. Jeb Bush famously dismissing it as “welfare for politicians.” And last year, the Republican controlled Legislature put on this November’s ballot Amendment 1, a proposal repealing public financing.

So far, no major campaign has been mounted to save it.
Former state Comptroller Bob Milligan, a Republican elected in 1994 over 20-year incumbent Democrat Gerald Lewis, is pointed to by many officials as the candidate most appropriately served by the public finance system.

But even Milligan is discouraged.

“Obviously, public financing can still serve some purpose,” Milligan said. “But it’s gotten too big – too much money in the system. It should be to help the person who could not compete otherwise. Not just help those that already are raising a lot of money.”

Milligan was a political nobody who made four circuits of the state behind the wheel of his Nissan Quest and faced long odds against the heavily financed Lewis. But a $100,633 injection of public finance cash in the campaign’s closing days gave Milligan enough to mount a modest television campaign.

He won – and credits public financing.

Still, since its earliest days, the public finance system has been gamed by lawmakers, its supporters say.

The most dramatic move came five years ago, when the Republican-controlled Legislature nearly tripled spending limits for those running for governor -- raising the spending roof to where this year, candidates can spend as much as $24.9 million and still qualify for taxpayer money.

Spending limits for Cabinet candidates also were raised fivefold that year, from $2 million.

The spending caps were bumped skyward in 2005 in anticipation of a freespending battle in the governor’s race – beginning with a costly GOP primary between now-Gov. Charlie Crist and rival Tom Gallagher.

Eventually, Crist pocketed more than $3.3 million in public funds, while also spending $20 million in the governor’s race. He also drew at least that much financial support from the Florida Republican Party.

Party backing didn’t count toward the spending cap. And having the party cover campaign expenses and air television ads was among the first means candidates used to sidestep spending limits.

The rise of 527 groups in this year’s Republican primary has further blurred the role of spending limits. Such shadowy organizations, named for the section of the IRS code that governs them, can raise and spend unlimited amounts to influence an election – usually through TV ads aimed at tearing down an opponent.

McCollum already has been helped by a couple of 527s: the Florida First Initiative and Alliance for America’s Future, run by the daughter of former Vice President Dick Cheney.
But with McCollum accepting public financing, Scott has to be careful, too. If Scott exceeds the $24.9 million spending limit, McCollum will get that extra amount, dollar-for-dollar from taxpayers.

That’s given birth to the pro-Scott 527, Let’s Get To Work Committee. Veteran lobbyist and elections lawyer John French is the organization’s only officer listed in documents filed with the IRS.

In one of Florida’s first tests of public financing, the late Gov. Lawton Chiles, who shaped the current law in his first year as chief executive, drew $3.5 million from the public till in defeating Jeb Bush in 1994. Chiles was helped with a bounty of dollars which flowed when Bush busted through the spending ceiling.

Wary of repeating that campaign misstep, Scott plans to pour money into the Let’s Get To Work Committee, whose ad went statewide Friday.

With big campaign dollars only growing bigger, Milligan, now retired in the Panhandle town of Mary Esther, said he fears landing in Florida’s history books as a public financing icon – especially if voters wipe out the law this fall.

“I don’t want to be on the page where it says, ‘Public financing, here’s the one time it worked,’” Milligan said.

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