Editorial: St. Petersburg City Council should leave campaign finance reform to Congress

There is no question that the influence of super PACs and the unlimited contributions that flow into them are a threat to democracy. But creating a credible remedy should fall to Congress and the state legislatures — not the St. Petersburg City Council. Times
There is no question that the influence of super PACs and the unlimited contributions that flow into them are a threat to democracy. But creating a credible remedy should fall to Congress and the state legislatures — not the St. Petersburg City Council.Times
Published June 20 2017
Updated June 20 2017

There is no question that the influence of super PACs and the unlimited contributions that flow into them are a threat to democracy. Or that attempts by foreign interests to sway elections should be exposed and rooted out. But creating a credible remedy should fall to Congress and the state legislatures — not the St. Petersburg City Council.

The City Council will resume its discussion Thursday of a proposed ordinance that would limit contributions to super PACs involved in city elections and limit spending on city elections by corporations largely controlled by foreign interests. It's a well-intended effort, and council members are being urged to support it by a range of local advocates, good-government groups and outside legal experts. But the potential legal costs for taxpayers are too high, and city officials have more pressing local issues to focus on rather than sweeping campaign finance reform that is certain to be tied up in the courts for years.

Super PAC money has grown exponentially since two key court opinions opened the floodgates. The U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Citizens United vs. FEC in 2010 lifted the ban on corporations and labor unions directly spending money to support or oppose federal candidates. Another case decided by the federal appeals court in Washington concluded that limits on contributions to outside groups, such as super political action committees, are unconstitutional. So corporations, unions and wealthy individuals have been writing big checks to influence elections, primarily through advertising.

The super PAC money that has saturated presidential and congressional campaigns, along with so-called dark money that is often impossible to trace, also sways statewide and legislative elections. It is beginning to show up in local elections, whether it is the rideshare company Uber spending millions in Texas to try to defeat a local referendum or a super PAC from Palm Beach County wading into a Pinellas School Board race. No wonder City Council chair Darden Rice, a former head of the League of Women Voters who has been active in good-government issues for years, wants St. Petersburg to take a strong stand.

The proposed ordinance the City Council will consider Thursday would require corporations that spend more than $5,000 in city elections to certify they are not entirely or partly owned by foreign interests above certain thresholds. It also would limit individual contributions to super PACs that spend money in city elections to $5,000. If the council approves the ordinance Thursday and again at a regular meeting in July, expect a court challenge the moment the city tries to enforce it.

That would get expensive. Legal costs could range from a conservative estimate of $400,000 to well over $1 million. Some outside groups have offered to help cover the city's costs, but there are no guarantees. Even if the new limits survived a court challenge, it's not clear the $500 fine for violating the ordinance would be a strong deterrent when a super PAC has millions to spend.

It's commendable that Rice and other City Council members recognize the threat to democracy posed by so much outside money contaminating elections. But so far, St. Petersburg elections have not been awash in super PAC money. Comprehensive campaign finance reform should come from Washington or Tallahassee, and the city should focus on other priorities.

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