TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) - Gov. Rick Scott signed a wide-ranging ethics bill and a separate measure that will raise campaign contribution limits, waiting until the final hours Wednesday before taking action on the bills.
Earlier in the day, Scott said he was still reviewing the bills. He previously questioned why campaign contribution limits needed to be raised. The ethics bill (SB 2) was a priority of Sen. President Don Gaetz and the campaign finance bill (HB 569) was important to House Speaker Will Weatherford. The House and Senate sent him the bills knowing they would have to be signed by or vetoed before midnight Wednesday, two days before the legislative session ends.
Campaign contribution limits, now at $500 per contributor per election for all offices, will be raised to $1,000 for legislative and local races and $3,000 for statewide races.
The bill also eliminates committees of continuing existence, or CCEs, which critics say some lawmakers use as slush funds for travel, meals and entertainment and that have nothing to do with the committees' political purposes. But lawmakers will still be able to form other political committees and take unlimited contributions. And lawmakers will now be able to keep $20,000 in contributions for their re-election. They previously haven't been able to roll over contributions.
While candidates can cash bigger checks, they'll also be required to file more frequent reports on who gave them money and how it was spent.
Right now, candidates file campaign finance reports every three months until two months before a primary election, when they have to file reports every two weeks through the general election. Statewide candidates will now have to file monthly reports, then weekly reports after the candidate qualifying period. Daily reports would have to be filed the last 10 days before the general election.
"With the increased limits, more candidates should be able to fund their campaigns directly without having to funnel so much money through special interest committees and political parties. The public will benefit from increased transparency," Dan Krassner, executive director of the independent government watchdog group Integrity Florida, said in a prepared statement.
The ethics bill will give the Florida Commission on Ethics more power to collect fines from officials. The commission will be able to garnish wages and the legislation will extend from four years to 20 years the amount of time for the commission to collect fines following an offense.
The commission currently has little power to collect fines against elected officials. It has written off $1 million in fines over the past decade, calling them essentially uncollectable.
The commission will also be able to take complaints from the governor, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and state and U.S. attorneys. The commission would also post officials' financial disclosure forms online.
The measure will also ban lawmakers from lobbying any state agency for two years after leaving office and will prohibit them from taking new government jobs while in office. It will also prohibit lawmakers from voting on any bills that could directly affect their personal finances.
Lawmakers will be required to take ethics training under the bill, which also sets rules for establishing blind trusts to manage officials' assets so they can avoid conflicts.
Another provision protects candidates from opponents who might use the commission to launch political attacks. Right now, the commission can't take up a complaint filed five days before an election until after the election is held. The bill doesn't allow complaints to be filed against a candidate for 30 days before an election unless the person who files it has firsthand knowledge of a violation, rather than relying on hearsay or news reports.
"Passing stronger ethics laws is a good way to improve Florida's reputation," said Krassner. "The lead ethics enforcement agency will finally gain new tools to address public corruption in all aspects of government. Floridians will have easier access to financial disclosure reports from our officials so we can hold them accountable for potential conflicts of interest."
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