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A Times Editorial

Election groups still need regulation

There are 1.3 million new reasons why Gov. Charlie Crist did the right thing by vetoing a bill that would have allowed legislative leaders to re-establish their own political slush funds. That's how much was charged to a state Republican Party credit card issued to a junior staffer but used by top Republicans to conceal their extravagant spending. The last thing the political process needs is for these big spenders to be able to raise even more money with little transparency and even less accountability.

Yet Crist's veto should not be the final word on campaign finance reform this year. With three weeks left in the legislative session, Crist needs to persuade lawmakers to salvage parts of the bill that would enable voters to keep closer track of the special interest money.

Unless the Legislature acts, Florida heads into the 2010 election season without being able to regulate shadowy election groups commonly known as 527 organizations, named after a section of the federal tax code. Florida law refers to such groups as electioneering communication organizations, and they often have generic, good-government names such as Stop Tax Waste that provide cover for the special interests funding them. A federal judge threw out the state regulations a year ago, concluding they were too general and violated free speech rights.

The result: The electioneering groups can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money without disclosing their contributions and expenditures at the state level. By the time they report their finances to the Internal Revenue Service, the elections will be long over and the damage will be done.

Lawmakers did a reasonable job of rewriting regulations for these groups in the bill (HB 1207) that Crist vetoed. They narrowed the types of organizations that are affected and re-established reporting requirements for contributions and expenses.

Unfortunately, legislative leaders such as incoming Senate President Mike Haridopolos of Melbourne are more upset about losing their ability to directly control their own leadership funds. But additional Republican Party credit card records obtained by the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau illustrate why it would be foolish to give top lawmakers access to more cash.

Over 2½ years, Republican staffer Melanie Phister's American Express card racked up nearly $1.3 million in charges. The statements show $40,000 for a London hotel, almost $20,000 for plane tickets for indicted former House Speaker Ray Sansom and his family, and thousands on tickets for plays, expensive dinners and sporting goods. Other credit card receipts have exposed lavish spending by Sansom, former House Speaker Marco Rubio and incoming House Speaker Dean Cannon. It will take a criminal investigation to sort it all out, but it is clear that a significant portion of the money raised for political purposes subsidized powerful lawmakers' lifestyles.

Legislators who are genuinely interested in campaign finance reform should reapprove the regulations for the electioneering groups — and quit whining about the loss of their slush funds. Sunshine can be a powerful disinfectant, and voters deserve to know who is paying for the attack ads before the election.

Election groups still need regulation 04/12/10 [Last modified: Monday, April 12, 2010 6:33pm]
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