(CN) – The 11th Circuit has blocked a Florida campaign-finance program that offers matching public funds to candidates running against wealthy, self-funded competitors.
Businessman and gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott challenged the constitutionality of the state’s campaign financing system, arguing that he was forced to scale down his campaign to keep spending under $24.9 million.
Exceeding that amount, he said, would trigger the “excess spending subsidy” which would provide his opponent with a “competitive advantage.”
The Atlanta-based appeals court overturned a judge’s refusal to bar the program, delivering a blow to Scott’s main Republican opponent, Bill McCollum Jr., the state’s current attorney general.
McCollum would have received a dollar-for-dollar match on whatever Scott spent above that amount.
Scott is a wealthy, self-described health care executive and businessman. He founded the Conservatives for Patients’ Right organization last year to “promote free market principals in health care reform.”
Running as a “conservative outsider,” Scott has never run for public office and is largely self-funding his campaign.
Thus far he’s spent more than $21 million in the Republican primary against McCollum, who’s using public funds.
McCollum has a long history in Florida politics, according to the ruling. Before serving as attorney general, he was a congressman for 20 years and twice campaigned unsuccessfully for U.S. Senator.
Florida’s campaign financing system provided candidates with matching public funds and gave candidates like McCollum a subsidy when an opponent spent more than $2 for each registered voter, or nearly $25 million for this election.
Scott claimed this violated his First Amendment rights, because it made him “curtail his campaign spending” and “engage in less campaign speech.”
The decision by a federal judge to keep the public financing system intact was for “preventing actual or apparent corruption” by encouraging participation in the Florida public financing system, according to the 44-page ruling.
“We think it’s obvious the subsidy imposes a burden on nonparticipating candidates, like Scott, who spend large sums of money in support of their candidates,” Circuit Judge William Pryor Jr. wrote.
“We also cannot say that enjoining the subsidy will disrupt the looming election,” the court concluded. “The district court found that McCollum has not planned his campaign spending in reliance of the subsidy, but has instead spent what he has to avoid falling even farther behind his main opponent.”
Scott is leading McCollum 44 percent to 31 percent among likely voters in the Republican primary, according to a poll conducted by Quinnipiac University.
The main criticism of Scott is the fact that he was forced from his CEO position with Columbia/HCA in 1997 amid a giant health care fraud scandal.
HCA subsidiaries pleaded guilty to substantial criminal conduct and paid more than $840 million in criminal fines, according to the Department of Justice.
And HCA itself eventually agreed to pay the government $631 million in civil penalties for allegedly submitting false Medicare claims.