Nothing better illustrates the corrupting influence of big money in Florida politics than the charade two Republican candidates for governor are playing to collect piles of cash from special interests. Attorney General Bill McCollum and health care executive Rick Scott are coordinating with third-party groups, avoiding the fundraising limits and disclosure rules their own campaigns must follow. The outrage is not that they are violating any laws but that their cynical manipulation of the system is legal. The average voter will need a crystal ball to ascertain before the Aug. 24 primary exactly who is trying to influence their vote — and who these men would be beholden to if they moved into the Governor's Mansion.
The problem stems in part from the state's outdated limit on contributions to individual candidates. Since 1991, donors have been limited to contributing no more than $500 an election to a candidates. The reform, pushed by then-Gov. Lawton Chiles, was intended to reduce the power of big money and encourage candidates to reach out to all voters, not just those with deep pockets. The state parties could accept unlimited donations but subscribed to the same rigid donor disclosure as candidates.
But that was before the rise of third-party groups, often called 527s after the Internal Revenue Service code. The groups are often little more than shell operations, but they can collect unlimited sums of soft money and the courts have given them broad latitude to advocate in candidates' interests. McCollum's campaign is coordinating directly with at least two third-party groups. And those groups have already received more than $1 million from other third-party groups controlled by the incoming Republican legislative leaders, Sen. Mike Haridopolos of Melbourne and Rep. Dean Cannon of Winter Park. Now Scott also has launched a third-party group in an apparent attempt to avoid hitting the spending threshold of $24.9 million in his campaign account that would entitle McCollum to receive state matching funds.
It needn't be this way. Federal law prohibits federal candidates and third-party groups from coordinating communications close to an election. But Florida's legislators, already addicted to the soft money scheme, have opted instead to allow the practice with some limited disclosure requirements. McCollum even ignored that requirement for weeks by denying he had any control over third-party groups running anti-Scott ads, even though some of his key campaign consultants were involved and he was steering contributors to one of the groups. It was indefensible behavior for the state's chief law enforcement officer, who finally came clean.
Neither McCollum nor Scott invented this shell game, but they are perfecting it. The casualties are transparent campaign fundraising and better informed voters. The remedies are well known: more vigorous public campaign financing, increased contribution limits for individual campaigns and bans on unlimited money laundering between third-party groups. Voters who are sick of the television attack ads from vague-sounding groups raising money from who knows where should press the next governor and the Legislature to embrace those reforms.