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Elections watchdogs wary of big budget hit, though a fix may come

State elections watchdogs are worried about a House bill that would give Gov. Rick Scott more power over judicial nominating commissions.

Florida Elections Commission officials aren't fretting over that part. They said this week they could lose more than half of their $1.3 million budget if HB 971, up for debate today in the House, becomes law.

As written, the bill would shift money the commission usually gets from election qualifying fees paid by unopposed, incumbent county and circuit judges to a Florida Bar scholarship program for women and minority students enrolled in Florida law schools. The students would have to express “a desire to seek judicial office in the future."

"While the intent of the amendment is a noble one, it has the detrimental consequence of decimating the commission’s operating budget,” said FEC executive director Rosanna Catalano.

The nine-member commission enforces compliance with state election laws and has the power to impose fines on elected officials and candidates. Appointees are unpaid, but they rely on the work of 14 staffers who investigate complaints year-round.

Their concerns may subside today. Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fort Walton Beach, said defunding the FEC was never his intention, and he said it will be amended.

He included the scholarship funding as a way to address colleagues' concerns about a lack of women and minorities on the bench and on the nominating commissions.

"This was an attempt to promote some overall balance," he said.

The Florida Bar Foundation did not request the scholarship money, though “we would, of course, be delighted to have funding,” said Jane Curran, its executive director.

The foundation suspended its student aid programs last year, she said, because its chief revenue source -- interest on trust accounts -- was down 88 percent.

The Senate version, sponsored by Sen. David Simmons, R-Altamonte Springs, does not include the provision for scholarships.