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The dollars are hard to track

Soaring through the Florida horizon in a private jet paid for by the Republican Party, Ken Plante marveled out loud how fundraising had changed since he was in the Senate a half-century earlier.

"You mean you had a turbo-prop back then?" said the state lawmaker next to him.

Not exactly. Plante, who recalled the exchange, was referring to a time before political parties paid for planes, five-star hotels or almost anything else a few powerful lawmakers could charge to an American Express account.

Plante, now a 71-year-old lobbyist, would never have recognized the political landscape in Florida had he been able to look out the window of his first Senate office in 1967 and glimpse the way money is now raised and spent in state races.

There have been improvements: campaign finance reports are available any time to any person with an Internet connection, no longer locked in a Tallahassee office to be read only during business hours.

But many cite myriad problems built into a campaign-finance system tilted to favor political parties, a dynamic that contributes to a partisan divide in the Capitol and concentrates power among a few lawmakers.

"Florida is the wild, wild West," said Mark Herron, an election law expert with the Florida Democratic Party. "For all intents and purposes, we are a wide-open state with no limits."

Herron's refrain was repeated by more than a dozen Republicans, Democrats, campaign finance attorneys and professional fundraisers.

Their most common complaints:

• Contribution caps of $500 for state candidates are unrealistically low. It's nearly impossible to pay for a statewide campaign that way and it's too easy to circumvent the limit.

• Politicians avoid accountability by using state parties to collect and spend six-figure campaign contributions from corporate donors.

• The rise of so-called 501(c)(4) groups, which are corporations that can engage in lobbying and campaigning without having to disclose donors.

As U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio was fond of saying when he was the state House speaker, the part-time Legislature at its core is a reactive institution built to respond to the latest headline.

When it comes to state election laws, the most pressing issue has been the collecting and counting of votes, a crisis that traces back to the 2000 presidential recount.

But the number of campaign-finance scandals in recent years has been piling up in court records, ethics complaints and newspaper reports.

Harry Sargeant, a fundraiser for former Gov. Charlie Crist and onetime Florida Republican Party finance chairman, was implicated in the 2009 indictment of a foreign national who allegedly collected illegal contributions for Crist from California donors. Some of those donors said they never heard of Crist.

In 2008, state Rep. Geraldine Thompson of Orlando left voice mails for fellow Democrats that explicitly linked committee assignments with contributions to the Florida Democrat Party. Thompson denied wrongdoing.

Alan Mendelsohn, who raised money for Republicans and Democrats, pleaded guilty in December to using a fundraising committee to secretly pay a former state senator $82,000.

Also last year, Republicans ousted their chairman, Jim Greer, after he pocketed $164,000 in party donations. Greer insists he did nothing wrong and is fighting felony theft charges in court.

• • •

Open a campaign for state office and, whether it's for the tiniest Florida House district or governor of the fourth-largest state, you can accept contributions of no more than $500.

For statewide candidates, who must campaign along a 700-mile stretch from Miami to Pensacola and cross 10 media markets along the way, it's the lowest limit in the country.

Just three states — Colorado, Connecticut and Maine — have lower caps for legislative races, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Florida's limit was lowered in 1991 from $3,000 for statewide races and $1,000 for legislative contests as part of a sweeping package of campaign finance changes.

The lower limits were offset by adding muscle to a public financing system designed to pay candidates who limited spending.

A bipartisan majority, led by Democrats, argued that public financing would make politicians more accountable to the public. But lawmakers chipped away at the system.

One of the biggest loopholes came in 1997, when lawmakers let state parties spend unlimited money on candidates for campaign activities like polling, staff and robo-calls.

A federal court in July agreed public financing helps fight the perception that money corrupts the political process.

But a panel of judges on the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals then proceeded to knock the teeth out of Florida's law.

Siding with Rick Scott, who would win the governor's race three months later, the judges barred the state from giving money to candidates whose opponents exceeded spending limits.

It was a victory for Scott, Florida's first modern governor to pay for nearly his entire campaign out of his own pocket.

But before Scott's case, the spending limit was rarely given a second thought.

The limit has been raised so high — $25 million in 2010 for governor candidates — that it would take a staggering 50,000 donations of $500 to reach it.

In the 2010 cycle, Democrat Alex Sink collected 14,226 checks for $500. That was about 5,000 more than No. 2 on the list, Republican Bill McCollum, who lost the GOP gubernatorial primary.

• • •

A grand jury assembled to investigate public corruption has reported the state Elections Commission found sufficient reason to investigate 315 complaints of campaign finance law violations in the past three years.

According to the grand jury, the "intricate blanket" of election laws is so complicated it can cause trouble for even an "honest and sincere public official."

The grand jury recommended a series of fixes, such as banning "three-pack" ads that let parties spend unlimited money advertising for three or more candidates at a time. Candidates do not have to report the ads, which often feature one candidate but include two more in fine print.

Republicans and Democrats largely agree the state's reporting requirements need to be improved.

Suggestions include prohibiting the use of independent political committees; capping the amount those committees can raise and spend; or requiring candidates and parties to report which donations come from which fundraising events.

But don't expect fixes soon.

For one, many states are treading lightly after a U.S. Supreme Court decision last year, Citizens United vs. FEC, eased federal restrictions on corporate and union spending on political advertising campaigns.

"The key is knowledge and exposure of who is giving what to do a particular message," said House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park. "But when in doubt, I would err on allowing the speech versus restricting it."

The Citizens decision did not directly affect state laws, but few states have been willing to test the ruling. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 17 of 24 states that ban or restrict corporate or union spending are considering repealing or rewriting those laws.

Meanwhile, there has been an increase in so-called 501(c)(4) groups in the ruling's wake.

Like 527s, 501s are named after a section of IRS code and can accept unlimited donations. But unlike 527s, the 501s don't have to report their donors.

These groups splashed into Florida last year and experts expect even more involvement in 2012.

Cannon and Senate President Mike Haridopolos said they have more pressing problems than campaign finance laws. Plus, they're unlikely to dramatically change a system that helped put them in power.

"This is what (legislative leaders have) done for a long time," said Mark Cross, a Republican activist in Osceola County.

"They get people elected who will vote for them in a speaker's race or president's race. And when they've got their team in place, they can pass substantial legislation."

Haridopolos acknowledged the dynamic, but denied any problem. He attributed his rise from "the basement" of the Florida Senate to a corner office by working the past eight years to install "fiscal conservatives" in the chamber.

"I found like-minded candidates," said Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island. "I was their friend. I helped them."

• • •

While Florida's disclosure laws are given high marks by some — UCLA's Campaign Disclosure Project gave Florida a B+ in 2008 — it is virtually impossible to hold a candidate accountable for the party's fundraising.

State party reports do not identify which politicians raised which donations or every candidate who benefited from the spending.

Candidates can avoid the contribution limits by creating their own 527 groups, known as "committees of continuous existence."

Candidates disclose their affiliation with independent political committees, but often deny knowledge of how money is spent.

For the 2010 cycle, 31 candidates for the Legislature, including 23 sitting lawmakers, were connected to committees that collected nearly $16 million through virtually unlimited amounts of money.

Six statewide candidates collected more than $25 million through independent committees. That total includes $12.8 million that Scott spent of his own money before the state's spending limit was struck down.

Plante said a mishmash of laws has left the state with a "broken" system.

"The only way I know to fix it would be a constitutional amendment defining freedom of speech with limits in the political arena," Plante said. "I'm not advocating that. But I know no other way."

Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Michael C. Bender can be reached at mbender@sptimes.com. Follow him on Twitter @MichaelCBender.

Candidates use other money

This breakdown of campaign expenditures shows candidates for state office in 2010 were accountable for a just fraction of the total political spending reported during the two-year cycle:

Candidates: $87.8 million*

State parties: $118.2 million

Independent committees: $160.1 million*

*Totals do not include money Gov. Rick Scott spent out of his own pocket. Scott put $60.4 million into his candidate account and another $12.8 million into his independent committee.

Source: Florida Division of Elections

What the grand jury suggested

Campaign finance law changes recommended by the statewide grand jury:

• Require clerks at state, county and city elections offices to report potential violations to the Elections Commission.

• Prohibit candidates from soliciting or accepting contributions in a building owned or leased by the government.

• Eliminate a two-year statute of limitations for violations of campaign finance laws.

• Create separate civil violation for repeatedly late-filed reports.

• Eliminate so-called "three-pack" ads that let political parties skirt contribution limits.

• Let the Florida Elections Commission conduct its own investigations.

The dollars are hard to track 02/25/11 [Last modified: Saturday, February 26, 2011 3:43pm]

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