Florida's campaign finance laws are broken. Unlimited special interest money gushes through hard-to-trace third-party committees. Political parties are increasingly irrelevant. And individual candidate fundraising — with outdated contribution limits — is often an afterthought. The result is voters cannot effectively trace the source of big money influencing elections, and a state Legislature beholden to special interests instead of Floridians. For the first time in more than a decade, legislative leaders are considering serious reforms. Their challenge will be to ensure that in fixing some problems they don't create new ones.
So far, House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz are focusing the debate on the right problems, most notably the inability to follow the money in state elections — a shameful reality in a state that boasts about its open-record laws. Weatherford and Gaetz want to dramatically increase openness by requiring candidates, committees and political parties to report all contributions and expenditures within 24 hours. They also would require that expenditure disclosures include details about money spent on advertising, including the subject, its target and where it will be distributed. Restoring openness must be the cornerstone of any reform, but alone it is not enough.
Much of the opaqueness in the current campaigns stems from so-called CCEs, committees of continued existence. The committees have become popular vehicles for powerful politicians to raise unlimited dollars from special interests. For example, Gov. Rick Scott, who is still 22 months from the 2014 general election, collected $5.2 million for his Let's Get to Work committee in the 2012 cycle. An embarrassing number of politicians have used CCEs as little more than slush funds to grease the political process. "People like having CCEs … to subsidize their filet mignon lifestyles," Gaetz acknowledged to the Times editorial board last week. He has joined Weatherford in calling for abolishing those committees, though Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, chairman of the Senate Ethics and Elections Committee, is leading a charge to try to reform them.
Whether it's worth trying to reform those committees is questionable, there is no doubt that the $500 contribution limit to individual candidates is outdated and should be raised. Some reform advocates, including nonpartisan watchdog group Integrity Florida, want to eliminate any limits on individual contributions to campaigns. With more disclosure and the abolishment of CCEs, they argue, the public would be better served.
That is not a smart trade-off. It is not in Florida's best interest to allow individual officeholders to be bought and sold with huge individual checks. That would breed corruption, undercut grass roots campaigns and benefit candidates with ties to deep pockets. Wisely, Gaetz has not yet signed on to this idea, instead expressing interest in increasing the cap on contribution limits to individual campaigns, perhaps to the federal level of $2,500 per election. Weatherford has been more supportive of an unlimited scheme but has not officially committed. There is plenty of room to negotiate a reasonable contribution limit without auctioning off legislative seats to the highest bidder.
Unlike their predecessors, Gaetz and Weatherford recognize the desperate need for campaign finance reform and are on the right track. Now their challenge is to convince the very people who were successful under the current system that the rules need to change.