In the world of Florida politics, where cash is king, $500 used to mean something.
Five hundred bucks is the maximum contribution someone can give directly to a candidate for office in an election, from governor on down to the county school board.
The $500 limit has been the law since 1991, when Lawton Chiles rode to the governorship calling for changes to the campaign finance system to curb the influence of money.
Chiles had cleverly capped his own contributions at $100 in that 1990 race and was adept at "bundling," or combining dozens of $100 checks from similar sources, such as law partners.
The news media and good-government groups hailed the $500 cap as positive reform.
But through the years, TV ad rates skyrocketed and consultants demanded higher fees, and now $500 is chump change in Florida's no-holds-barred fundraising atmosphere.
That's because state legislators have legally devised an end run around the $500 limit by controlling political committees that are exempt from the limit. They can accept donations in any amount and are more dependent than ever on big money contributions from dominant political interests, such as hospitals, insurers, casinos, race tracks, law firms and labor unions.
In effect, dozens of lawmakers now control millions of dollars that used to go to political parties. The new legislative leaders say things have gotten completely out of hand, but took advantage of the system themselves.
In the campaign cycle that just ended, Senate President Don Gaetz controlled a fund of about $4 million and House Speaker Will Weatherford, $2 million. Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, controlled a fund that raised $1.9 million. Latvala, a tenacious and experienced lawmaker, is the new chairman of the Senate Ethics & Elections Committee, a focal point of changes to the campaign finance system.
Gaetz and Weatherford want to raise the $500 contribution cap and ban legislator-controlled funds, called CCEs or committees of continuous existence, which collectively raised $22 million in the last cycle, according to contributionlink.com.
"I think $500 is archaic," Weatherford says. "We all know people are spending a lot of money on campaigns. Unfortunately, none of it's going to the actual campaigns."
Before Chiles, the maximum contribution to a legislative candidate was $1,000, and $3,000 to statewide candidates.
Weatherford says the changes he seeks would be more transparent than what exists today in Florida.
Under the current system, CCEs and electioneering organizations that buy ads and mail pieces transfer millions of dollars among them, making it hard to follow the money.
Gaetz and Weatherford see a system poisoned by big money and want to clean it up, just like Chiles did more than two decades ago.
"What I'm trying to achieve is sanity," Weatherford says.
Steve Bousquet can be reached at [email protected] or (850) 224-7263.