Wednesday, February 21, 2018
Opinion

Ruth: For Tallahassee, money changes everything

Do you get the suspicion that any time a politician claims that campaign finance reform represents the second coming of the Founding Fathers that we are all pretty much democracy's answer to road kill?

Great hosannas arose from the floor of the Florida House the other day after a mostly party-line vote approved a bill raising limits on campaign contributions, while also permitting unlimited de facto bribes to candidates' political committees.

Now there's an amber waves of grain moment for you.

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Hi, I'm Will, Buy Me, opined the measure demonstrated the "wisdom" of Tallahassee's chamber of money changers from one pocket to another. We'll pause here for a moment so you can check your wallet.

Under the current system of slush funds, big shots such as Weatherford and his colleagues can create innocuous sounding Committees of Continuing Existence, which could accept unlimited sums of moolah to be spent on anything except campaigns.

Imagine, if you are a Tallahassee potentate like Weatherford, R-A Check? For Me? You Shouldn't Have!, or any other member of the Florida Legislature, how suddenly popular you would become among the state's high-rolling special interests.

The CCEs, in effect, are nothing more than thinly legalized baksheesh, helping to pay for travel, meals, bar tabs and Boss Tweed only knows what else. But it is safe to say the cash flowing into the CCEs wasn't being wasted on stuff like studies to make voting in Florida more accessible.

Under the new system approved by the House — cue the "Hallelujah Chorus" — the CCEs would go away. But as a practical matter — not all that very far.

The revised campaign finance measure, sponsored by Rep. Rob Schenck, R-The Envelope, Please, would up the ante someone could contribute to a campaign from $500 to $5,000 for statewide candidates and $3,000 for everyone else. The CCEs would go away, but contributions to political action committees would go from a limit of $500 to unlimited. How's that for some "action"?

Rep. Dwight Dudley, D-Anybody Seen My Watch?, refused to support what he called a "blatant, brazen incumbent protection plan" purely designed to ensure "a small group of people will run for public office."

Alas, poor Dudley is a St. Petersburg freshman newbie to the wheeling and dealing waters of Tallahassee. Memo to Dudley: It is impossible to shame the shameless.

Of course the House bill is a brazen incumbent plant. Of course the whole idea here is to ensure a small select group of people will be able to run for office and win. Duh.

Dudley was offering up a withering rebuke of his colleagues' embrace of that old adage that we all have a price; it's only a matter of negotiation. But for Weatherford, R-Brother Can You Spare $5,000?, and the rest of the House, that rejoinder was merely a Good Florida House-keeping Seal of Approval.

There is a similar Florida Senate bill that sets the campaign contribution cap at $3,000. But what's a couple of grand difference among fig leaves posing as champions of the people?

Gov. Rick Scott has said he's not crazy about raising the campaign contribution limit; this from a chap who spent more than $70 million of his own money to get elected.

So when Scott was asked during a meeting with the Tampa Bay Times editorial board Monday if he would veto any increase in the contribution cap, the governor demurred. He said he never utters the "v" word. Okay then, would he reject the measure? But the governor refused to play along.

Still, Scott is no dummy. While he may be uneasy about turning the Florida Legislature into the Mustang Ranch of campaign contributions, Scott also knows the Legislature has yet to warm to one of his signature issues — giving teachers a $2,500 across-the-board pay increase.

What to do? It would come as no surprise if the Legislature gets its campaign contribution mattress stuffer in return for the teacher raises.

And in the end, does it really make much difference? The books always have been cooked to protect incumbents.

Perhaps that's what Weatherford, R-You Can't Put Too High A Price On Good Government, meant when he mused that when the governor saw "what we're trying to accomplish, he'll come around."

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