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Fla. GOP outraised Democrats by millions, took in money from companies pushing legislation

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TALLAHASSEE, Florida — Florida legislators this year are debating everything from gambling to what kinds of beer containers can be sold and how much money to give professional sports teams — so it is perhaps not surprising that the largest campaign donors have included casino developers, team owners and beer distributors.

New campaign finance reports filed this week show that millions flowed into the campaign accounts of the state's two main political parties during the first three months of 2014.

The Republican Party of Florida, led by Gov. Rick Scott, raised nearly $10.4 million, while the Florida Democratic Party raised nearly $2.2 million.

Most of the money came from many of the companies and businesses pushing to either pass or kill bills in the GOP-controlled Florida Legislature.

Some of the larger contributors to Republicans include the Seminole Tribe of Florida, companies affiliated with casino operator Genting, Florida's two largest sugar growers, the state's largest health insurance company, utility companies, and Disney. One of the largest individual donors for the GOP was Miami Dolphins owner Stephen Ross, who wrote a check for $250,000.

Democrats took in large checks from the Seminole Tribe of Florida, Disney, and a campaign committee affiliated with former Gov. Charlie Crist, a former Republican running for governor as a Democrat.

Ross' donation is not surprising - he recently held a fundraiser for Scott — but it comes as legislators again consider whether to pass a bill that would allow various professional franchises to qualify for tax rebates from the state. A similar bill that would have helped pay for renovations to Sun Life Stadium, where the Dolphins play, died last year after House Speaker Will Weatherford refused to take it up.

The checks flowing in from dog tracks, the Seminoles and Genting came while the Legislature was considering a comprehensive gambling bill that could have allowed two casinos in South Florida. Three days after the first-quarter fundraising deadline passed, Sen. Garrett Richter, R-Naples, and chairman of the Senate Gaming Committee, announced the bill was dead.

Beer distributors are donating money in a year when they are locked in a battle with craft breweries trying to win permission to start half-gallon beer growlers.

Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, downplayed the importance campaign contributions play in the legislative process.

"We take campaign contributions all the time, Democrats and Republicans, from people we don't agree with on every single issue," Gaetz said.

But other veteran legislators say that contributions do play a role in what the Legislature does.

"Up here, it's always about the money," said Sen. Tom Lee, R-Brandon, a former Senate president.

Follow Gary Fineout on Twitter: http://twitter.com/fineout

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