Public financing may be doomed in Florida, but McCollum sure needs it

As you curse the barrage of negative political TV ads you'll see all summer, remember one thing: You paid for some of them, so enjoy 'em.

Since 1986, Florida has given tax money to statewide candidates to help offset the costs of their campaigns. The idea may seem loony, but it's not.

Politicians who abide by state-imposed spending limits can get money from the taxpayers. The concept is to help underfunded candidates and limit the influence of special interests in deciding who gets elected.

Republicans like to call it "welfare for politicians," but guess who criticizes the system and is one of the biggest beneficiaries? You got it — Republican politicians. Democrats take the money, too, but they generally support public financing.

In the last election cycle in 2006, taxpayers shelled out more than $11 million to 10 statewide candidates. Charlie Crist got the bulk of it, $3.3 million, because the arithmetic of public financing gives matching money to candidates who raise the most individual contributions of $250 or more.

Public financing may be doomed, however, because most Republicans in the Legislature want to get rid of the system.

Amendment 1 on the November ballot would abolish the system, but before voters have their say, public financing may yet play an important role in Florida.

In the Republican primary for governor, only a handsome handout from taxpayers may help Attorney General Bill McCollum compete with the untold millions in GOP rival Rick Scott's bank account.

Scott has spent $11 million of his own money so far. By law, if he exceeds $24.9 million, McCollum will get a dollar for every dollar Scott spends above that number. The state Legislature set that shockingly high cap in 2005, never anticipating a deep-pocket candidate like Scott would be looming on the horizon.

The Department of State's Public Campaign Financing Handbook probably says it best. Quoting the law that created public financing, it says: "The costs of running an effective campaign for statewide office had reached a level tending to discourage persons from running for office," and the public financing system was enacted "to protect the effective competition by candidates using public funding."

McCollum, who had $3.9 million in the bank in April, supports limited public financing of campaigns, and with Scott as his opponent, who can blame him? For him to oppose public financing while accepting the subsidy would open him up to accusations of hypocrisy.

Said McCollum campaign spokesman Kristy Campbell on Friday: "He believes limited public financing allows for competitive races among strong candidates." (McCollum received $897,000 in public funds in his race for attorney general four years ago).

Scott's stand on public financing, from spokesman Jennifer Baker: "Rick Scott opposes taxpayer financing of campaigns, as did career politician Bill McCollum before he sacrificed his principles."

While serving in Congress in 1998, McCollum opposed public financing of congressional campaigns, and instead favored higher caps on individual contributions and a tax credit for them as well.

The first distribution of public funds in this election cycle will be July 23. For McCollum, who sees dollar signs every time he sees Scott's name, that check can't come soon enough.

Correction: During his 2006 run for governor, Charlie Crist received $3.3 million in public financing. A previous version of this story included a different figure.

Public financing may be doomed in Florida, but McCollum sure needs it 06/04/10 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:53pm]

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