Florida's state government is broken. Limitless campaign contributions, too-short term limits and lax ethics rules corrupt the legislative process and fuel the public's frustration with a government controlled by special interests and influence peddlers. In today's Perspective section, the St. Petersburg Times/Miami Herald Tallahassee bureau explains how those factors have combined to create a Legislature that lacks the courage and vision to meet Florida's most pressing challenges. It is a depressing portrait, but there are remedies. More transparent and practical campaign finance laws, tougher ethics rules and longer term limits would help break the status quo in Tallahassee. Now, even lawmakers who begin as well-intended candidates eager to engage in public service quickly succumb to the power of money and the demands of legislative leaders. Those leaders have had too little time themselves to learn about public policy and are indebted to their big-money backers. Florida needs lawmakers who can focus more independently on the state's long-term future and less on raising money and angling for their next political job.
Reform campaign finance
Florida should modernize its campaign finance laws so that contributions are more transparent and candidates are more accountable. Seventy-five percent of campaign dollars flow into the slush funds of political parties and third-party committees, making it virtually impossible to trace the special-interest money to individual candidates. Among the remedies:
• Raise the $500 limit on contributions to candidates' campaign accounts. The limit is outdated, and it encourages candidates and special interests to launder contributions through other groups — many created only for that purpose. Only political parties and third-party committees can accept unlimited donations now, and less stringent disclosure requirements allow them to mask exactly which candidates benefit from spending.
• Prohibit candidates from coordinating their campaigns with third-party committees.
• Close the 1997 loophole that allows political parties to spend unlimited money on candidates for expenses such as polling, staffing and automated calls to voters.
• Toughen disclosure requirements for political parties and third-party committees so they are reporting donations and expenditures as frequently as candidates are required to report.
Strengthen ethics laws
Florida politicians have little to fear when they skirt ethical boundaries, contributing to the anything-goes atmosphere that empowers special-interest lobbyists and the lawmakers who court them for campaign cash. Three steps would raise ethical standards:
• Expand the state's criminal statutes to include sanctions for elected officials who use their offices for personal gain or in the commission of a crime. Increase penalties for those found in violation of ethics laws.
• Require elected officials to declare any conflict of interest on legislation no later than the moment it's ready for House or Senate vote. The law now gives legislators until 15 days after the vote, far too late for the public to judge where the politicians' loyalty lies.
• Allow the Florida Ethics Commission to initiate investigations into whether elected or appointed officials have violated the law. Now the commission must wait for a citizen complaint to be filed.
Lengthen term limits
Nearly two decades after voters approved eight-year term limits, the fallout is painfully clear. Part-time lawmakers, with no time to develop expertise or master the process, are more likely to blindly follow leadership, depend on legislative staffers and the lobbyists representing special interests for information, and toe the partisan line. That doesn't serve Floridians.
Lawmakers should place a constitutional amendment on the ballot that asks voters to extend the limit to at least 12 years, as Rep. Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, and Sen. Mike Bennett, R-Bradenton, have proposed this session. That would provide more time for politicians to master the complex issues facing the nation's fourth-largest state, rise to leadership positions and act more independently.
Senate President Mike Haridopolos, R-Merritt Island, and House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, have no interest in changing the current system they so successfully manipulated to reach the pinnacle of power. Haridopolos, in particular, has a vested interest. As a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 2012, he's already begun milking millions in contributions to his campaign from some of the very interests with issues before the 2011 Legislature.
But for now, Haridopolos represents Floridians in only a single Senate district in Florida. Thirty-nine other districts, and their voters, also deserve a government that represents their interests, not those of special interests and select politicians.
Beyond these suggested remedies, there is hope that voter-approved reforms in how the Legislature draws its districts in 2012 will usher in change. No longer can lawmakers draw the lines for personal or partisan gain. Predictably, those reforms are under a legal assault — and the state House has joined in the lawsuit attempting to overturn them. Some observers also consider Republican Gov. Rick Scott, whose self-funded campaign arguably leaves him unbeholden to special interests, as a natural ally for reform. But Scott can't write laws. Only legislators can. Nothing short of a voter drumbeat will change Tallahassee. It should start now.