In California, former eBay CEO Meg Whitman spent more than $70 million of her own money to win last week's Republican primary for governor. In Florida, former health care executive Rick Scott has spent more than $12 million to become the front-runner for the Republican nomination for governor. Palm Beach billionaire Jeff Greene is virtually tied for the lead in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Yet the U.S. Supreme Court continues to gut efforts to level the playing field and allows those with the fattest wallets to have the loudest voices and drown out everyone else.
The court jumped into Arizona's race for governor last week and blocked the use of matching money by candidates who agreed to participate in the state's public campaign financing system. The justices still have to decide whether to hear the full case in the fall, but the message is clear: Public campaign financing, one of the last remaining safeguards against the power of mountains of money in elections, is on life support.
The implications are significant for Florida, whose system is similar but not identical to Arizona's. In return for voluntarily accepting spending limits, statewide candidates get state matching money for smaller contributions. They also get a matching dollar for every dollar their opponent spends over the limit. That is the system that enabled the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles to keep his $100 contribution limit in 1994 and still match the spending by unsuccessful Republican challenger Jeb Bush. It is the system that also enabled then-Republican Charlie Crist to get more than $3.3 million in public matching money for smaller contributions for his successful campaign for governor in 2006.
Florida's public campaign financing system is a shadow of its former self and facing extinction. The Republican-controlled Legislature in 2005 raised the spending limits so high — $24.9 million for the general election this year — that it is not nearly as effective as it was in 1994. This spring, the Legislature placed a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would abolish the system altogether. Wonder how many of those Republican legislators who voted for that amendment are reconsidering now that Scott has leaped to the top of opinion polls against Republican Attorney General Bill McCollum.
The Supreme Court is on a mission to discourage free speech rather than allow it to flourish from many voices. The court eliminated the so-called Millionaires' Amendment in 2008, which enabled candidates for Congress to raise more money to compete against opponents paying for their own campaigns. It eliminated limits to campaign spending by corporations earlier this year, opening the door for big business (and labor unions) to overwhelm voters with misleading attack ads and drown out lesser funded candidates. Now public campaign financing is on the endangered list in Washington and Florida.
Floridians are just learning how quickly first-time candidates with deep pockets, no political experience, no record on public issues and no resume of public service can game the system. By November, it should be even clearer why voters should reject the effort to kill public campaign financing in this state — and why the Supreme Court is headed in the wrong direction.
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.