Report: Weak campaign laws in Florida shield influx of money in politics
A new report by the National Institute for Money in State Politics finds that, surprise, campaign spending in Florida is increasingly allowing both large donors and candidates to circumvent the state's campaign finance limits but, "poor disclosure laws inhibit analysis of the impact this spending had on the outcome of elections."
From the report:
"Between 2006 and 2010, $96.8 million of independent spending was reported in Florida, with just under half spent during the 2010 election. In each election, independent spending reached 25 to 30 percent of the amount contributed directly to candidates and ballot measure campaigns. While not showing much growth in relative terms, the total amount of independent spending grew substantially in absolute terms between 2006 ($31.5 million) and 2010 ($48.2 million). This increase, however, is not due to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United v. FEC decision, which did not affect Florida’s campaign finance laws."
Although the total independent political spending was less than a third of the money given directly to state campaigns, it is, nevertheless, playing an increasingly important role in Florida’s elections. The use of Electioneering Communication Organizations (ECOs)—or “527s” after their IRS designations—allow both large donors and candidates to circumvent Florida’s contribution and public financing limits.
A large donor can only give a candidate $500 per election, yet they are free to spend unlimited sums on electioneering communications, which are advertisements that seek to influence an election but fall short of explicitly endorsing or opposing a particular candidate or ballot measure. Candidates, particularly gubernatorial candidates, used ECOs to augment their fundraising operations and avoid the limits imposed by Florida’s public financing system.
Compounding the problem is that Florida’s disclosure of independent spending makes it difficult for the public to understand of who is funding or benefiting from the spending. Nearly 300 independent spending committees have been created since 2005, with innocuous names like “Let’s Get To Work,” “Florida’s Working Families,” and “Floridians for Truth and Integrity in Government,” with little or no identifying information. Yet many of these committees are registered to a small group of people. Of the $96.8 million of total independent spending during the study period, $38.8 million, 40 percent of the overall total, was routed through ECOs controlled by just four individuals.1
One of those individuals is Nancy Watkins, a particularly good example of how multiple independent spending committees are employed by a small number of political professionals. Watkins’ accounting firm, Robert Watkins and Co., is located at 610 South Boulevard, Tampa, Florida, which is also the official address of 88 different political committees—of which 24 are independent spending committees, 33 are registered with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC), and dozens more are 527 organizations registered with the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). These committees spent millions of dollars in Florida and across the country.2 3 All of these committees are registered either to Nancy Watkins, or her husband and business partner, Robert Watkins.4 5
Several of the committees registered with the Watkins firm are the Florida affiliates of nationwide political organizations. For example:
- Nancy Watkins is the chair, treasurer, and registered agent of the Florida arm of the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC), a national 527 organization that supports Republican candidates at the state level, now run by former Bush Administration advisors Karl Rove and Ed Gillespie. The national organization spent an additional $1.25 million in Florida in 2010.
- Ms. Watkins also serves as the treasurer and registered agent of the League of Florida Voters ECO. The group’s only contributor was the League of American Voters (LAV), which gave the League of Florida Voters $435,000 in 2010.6 LAV has the same Washington, D.C. address as Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, one of the preeminent Republican political organizations in the country.
This report, and our independent spending database, provides the first analysis of how independent spending augments direct political contributions in Florida. The report discusses the state of independent spending disclosure in Florida and, to the greatest extent possible, identifies the politicians and funders who are the most reliant on independent spending. Because Florida’s data lacks several key pieces of crucial information, most notably which candidates are targeted by independent spenders, this report provides a general analysis of the spending.