The Florida Supreme Court's unanimous opinion upholding the ban on legislators accepting gifts from lobbyists was one of the few bright spots last week in Tallahassee. Despised by many lawmakers and lobbyists, the 2005 law has changed the culture in the capital for the better. Now there is a more insidious form of influence-peddling undermining the integrity of the legislative process, and no one is willing to stop it.
A special report by the Times/Herald Tallahassee bureau revealed that dozens of legislators from both political parties collected $6 million from special interests during the last campaign cycle for their own slush funds. They spent a significant portion of it on themselves for travel and meals, and they moved big sums between various political committees to back their friends and attack their enemies. There are no limits on the contributions to these committees of continuing existence — and no oversight. They pose an enormous threat of corruption and influence-peddling, and they ought to be shut down.
Why did the Hospital Corporation of America give $269,000 to these slush funds the past two years? Why did U.S. Sugar Corp. give $226,260? Why did AT&T give $151,500? They are not interested in the nebulous missions of lawmaker-controlled groups with names such as Alliance for a Strong Economy and Leadership for Florida's Future. HCA wants the Legislature to change the way Medicaid money is awarded. U.S. Sugar wants lawmakers to embrace a deal for the state to buy its property. AT&T wants phone legislation. They are making down payments by sending checks for $10,000 or more to these groups that are little more than piggy banks for powerful legislators.
Too many legislators are blind to the dangers. Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, says committees like the one he helps oversee collect private contributions to pay for lawmakers' travel. Translation: Special interests are only too happy to help pay the operating overhead of a possible future Senate president. In the House, Rep. Ellyn Bogdanoff complains the gift ban forces her to raise money through her committee to travel to speaking engagements. The fact that the Fort Lauderdale Republican chairs a House committee reviewing sales tax exemptions and that contributors to her slush fund benefit from those exemptions must be a coincidence.
The $500 contribution limit to individual political campaigns is meaningless as long as politicians accept unlimited contributions to these slush funds. And it is too easy to ridicule a gift ban that prevents a lobbyist from directly buying a legislator a steak while the same lobbyist can write the legislator's slush fund a check for $10,000. These committees have little to do with free speech and everything to do with buying influence, and no amount of public disclosure is going to change that. At the very least, the $500 limit on contributions to individual campaigns should apply to these slush funds as well.