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Proposed bill would reregulate 'electioneering' in Florida

I'm hanging out this week in Tallahassee, where our Legislature has started its 60-day annual session. The ship has not wrecked so far, but then, this is only Day 8.

One of the big things that will come up this morning is an elections bill, always a hot topic. There's a saying that the Legislature consists of 160 self-appointed election "experts."

Senate Bill 880 is 59 pages long, and its title alone (which must specify out all the things the bill does) takes up 150 lines. There are at least three things of note in it:

• First, the law would restore some state rules on "electioneering" groups. These are the outfits that run commercials that say things like, "Call Sen. Smith and tell him to stop hurting Florida's children."

Everybody knows they are thinly veiled campaign ads, and the Legislature to its credit tried to regulate them. But a federal judge last year threw out Florida's law as too broad.

Without state regulation and reports, we don't get to know who's spending this money before the state election. (These groups still have to tell the feds later, but by then we've already voted.)

Under this bill, groups would be regulated if they ran ads within 60 days of the general election, or 30 days before the primary election, that were clearly intended to support or oppose a candidate — where there could be "no other reasonable interpretation."

One of the problems with the old law was that even small groups of citizens such as a condominium association might unwittingly become an "electioneering" group for as much as publishing a newsletter. The new bill applies only to groups or individuals who raise and spend more than $5,000.

• Another part of SB 880 would return Florida to a system of "leadership funds," in which the party leaders of the House and Senate have their own political committees to raise money and help their colleagues get elected. It was considered a "reform" when we got rid of these funds a few years back.

As an old reformer, I ought to hate to see them again. These "leadership funds" were basically a way to buy influence directly in the Legislature. And yet these days dozens of members of the Legislature have these kinds of committees anyway — they just have different names.

There's even the argument that going back to the old system would be better than the hodgepodge of committees we've got now — at least all the money comes into and flows out of the same place, and is fully reported to the public and hence more visible. How's that for logic?

• Deep down in the bill, there's a section that made me sit up and laugh with recognition: It weakens the ban passed just last year on "electioneering" by Florida's local governments, or taking sides on ballot issues.

The bill would change the rules to say only that local governments cannot budget any money to try to influence elections. This gives them a freer hand to do just about anything else, as long as they can claim they did not make a "specific appropriation or designated expenditure."

SB 880 is up before the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee this morning. Speakin' from the peanut gallery, I would reregulate the "electioneering groups," ban all legislative fundraising committees (which ain't gonna happen), and kill the local-government stuff. But that's just me.

Proposed bill would reregulate 'electioneering' in Florida 03/08/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 9, 2010 1:08am]
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