TALLAHASSEE — Florida's sputtering economy did not stop interest groups and donors from spending $306 million this election cycle on state political campaigns, according to final election year tallies released Friday.
The number is lower than the $550 million reported in the 2010 election cycle and does not include the massive amount of federal cash spent in the presidential race. But it points to a new trend: more dollars are going to campaign committees rather than individual candidates.
Three out of every four dollars were unlimited checks to political committees, while the rest went into the campaign accounts of individuals, which are capped at $500 a check.
The shift is a sign that Florida's $500 limit is outdated and dysfunctional — and ripe for reform, said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida, which did the analysis of the campaign finance data released by the Florida Division of Elections.
"Candidate accounts have become nearly irrelevant,'' said Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida. The current system allows corporations to write unlimited checks to political committees with loose affiliations to candidates but require them to give no more than $1,000 to individual candidates for both the primary and general election. The result is, he said, "the public cannot easily follow the money.''
House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has called for an overhaul of the state's campaign finance reforms, said Friday the numbers prove his point that the political committees — known as Committees of Continuous Existence, or CCEs — have gotten out of hand.
"I'm not trying to cap the amount of money that's spent and raised, but we should do everything we can to move spending to the candidates and the parties, not committees,'' he said.
The Integrity Florida analysis found an explosion in the last three election cycles of CCEs — the loosely regulated entities that can collect unlimited checks and can pay for consultants, travel, meals and other expenses for a candidate but can't pay for advertising or mailers. Dozens of legislators use the committees to augment their election bids and steer money to other campaigns.
Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, raised the most cash of any legislators who control a CCE. Also raising large sums were the two candidates vying to become the next Senate president, Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, and Joe Negron, R-Palm City.
The cash haul was not limited to the current candidates. Gov. Rick Scott's political committee benefited from the ability to collect unlimited checks in Florida. He raised $360,000 in November and December, including a $100,000 check from AT&T.
In 2010, when the governor and three Cabinet races were on the ballot along with state legislators, contributions to individual candidates comprised 44 percent of the total. In 2012, contributions to individual candidates dropped to 25 percent of the total, just below where it was in 2008 when 26 percent of the $265 million spent went to individual campaigns.
Meanwhile, 1,119 political committees, including the political parties, raised $230 million or 75 percent of the total in 2012, compared to 56 percent in 2010.
Unlike individual campaigns, it's not always possible to know which candidates political committees support. State law requires committees to name a treasurer, chairman and registered agent, but some groups fill those positions with obscure individuals so the committee can't be tracked to the public officials they were formed to help.
Latvala, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, said it is time to strengthen disclosure requirements for political committees as part of the Senate's elections reform proposals.
"What I want to do is bring transparency to who gives, and to do that you need uniform requirements for reporting on the Web,'' said Latvala.