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A Times Editorial

Reform Florida's campaign finance system

Florida’s campaign finance system is broken. Too many large checks that are too difficult to trace flow into too many obscure committees. The result is corruption, attack ads financed by unknown donors and a pay-to-play culture in Tallahassee.

In the past year, a former Republican Party chairman pleaded guilty to stealing money that was gushing into the state party. A Central Florida lawmaker in line to be speaker of the state House lost his re-election bid after using his political committee as a personal slush fund. The governor raised millions of dollars in unlimited contributions for his political committee from special interests looking for his help. And the new House speaker learned that money he helped raise went to an obscure committee that bankrolled a despicable campaign ad comparing a respected teacher to a child molester.

House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz promise some of the boldest campaign finance reform in years, starting with changes to help voters better trace the money and hold politicians more accountable. But the devil is in the details. Closing one loophole opens another. And no one solution will limit the flow of cash and make the system more transparent.

Here are five steps to meaningful campaign finance reform:

Increase openness

In an era when consumers see their credit card transactions within minutes online, Florida requires political candidates, committees and political parties to file campaign finance disclosure forms just four times a year (and more often around elections).

A good start toward reform would be to require monthly reports on contributions and expenditures from political committees and candidates most of the year; weekly reports during election season; and daily reports starting 10 days before a general election. But the same rules also should apply to the political parties.

Ban slush funds

For decades, Committees of Continuous Existence were used by trade groups and professional associations for dues earmarked for political campaigns. But the committees are being created by powerful politicians to collect unlimited dollars from special interests to subsidize their campaigns, buy influence with other candidates and, in the most gross abuses, pay for their personal lifestyles.

These committees should be abolished, but don't transfer the problem to other types of political committees. For example, abolishing a $500 contribution limit and allowing unlimited contributions to political committees is a prescription for disaster.

Membership organizations also should be able to avoid reporting small donations of less than $250 annually. That ensures that a wide variety of groups — from unions to doctor's associations — still have a reasonable mechanism to participate in the political process.

Limit money laundering

It is nearly impossible to determine who is paying for political advertising. Money is laundered repeatedly through various political committees and political parties. None of the proposed changes in Tallahassee will do much to alleviate the problem — save for the increased reporting that would just give more timely notice of transfers.

Reduce the money laundering by eliminating transfers between political committees and electioneering communications organizations. Until voters can identify how each dollar is contributed and spent, the system will remain too opaque.

Raise contribution limits

It's been more than two decades since Florida placed a $500 limit per election on contributions to candidates for state offices. That limit is too low now, and politicians circumvent it by taking in unlimited contributions to their committees or to political parties. But unlimited contributions to candidates is a prescription for more corruption. The House has proposed a limit as high as $10,000 per election, which is still far too much.

Contributions to federal candidates are limited to $2,500. The limit to contributions for candidates for state offices should be no higher.

Open up primaries

Both Republican and Democrats are guilty of rigging the general election ballot with token write-in candidates to ensure their party primaries are closed to voters of the other party and to voters with no party affiliation. That ensures the primaries are decided by only the most partisan voters, and the primaries often decide who is going to hold office. Voters should get to choose which primary election they want to vote in, which would increase voter participation and result in more centrist candidates who better reflect Florida's sensibilities.

"For a Better Florida," published every year since 1951, is the Tampa Bay Times' preview of the annual legislative session, which begins Tuesday. This special Perspective is a collection of news, analysis and opinion meant to stimulate debate over some of the most important issues facing our state.

Reform Florida's campaign finance system 03/01/13 [Last modified: Friday, March 1, 2013 4:10pm]
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