Rick Scott wants to buy the Governor's Mansion rather than campaign for it. The health care executive has not finalized plans to debate his Republican primary opponent, Attorney General Bill McCollum, and he does not want to answer questions about his former company's Medicare fraud that resulted in $1.7 billion in fines. Now he has asked a federal court to overturn the state's public campaign financing law so he can spend whatever he wants from his personal fortune on television ads and keep McCollum from receiving public matching money. It is a cynical attempt to drown out his opponent that the courts should reject.
Florida's public campaign financing law is more than 20 years old, and it is a balanced attempt to encourage more free speech in statewide elections — not limit it as Scott claims. It is not a "millionaire's amendment,'' which enabled candidates for Congress to raise more money to compete against opponents paying for their own campaigns. That law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2008. And Florida's law is different than Arizona's, which gave candidates lump sums of public money and was put on hold last month by the nation's highest court.
Instead, Florida's law enables candidates for governor and Cabinet to receive public matching money for contributions of $250 or less in return for voluntarily agreeing to a spending limit. Candidates who participate get an additional matching dollar for every dollar their opponent spends over the limit. Without that protection on the back end, no candidate would risk agreeing to spending limits and broadening their fundraising base with smaller contributors.
Scott illogically argues that providing McCollum public money to match whatever he spends over the limit infringes on his free speech rights. He already has spent more than $20 million of his own money and is on pace to easily break the $24.9 million spending limit McCollum has agreed to follow. But Scott's speech rights are not being chilled; he remains free to spend as much as he wants on his own campaign. Instead the law enables McCollum's speech — and the speech of Scott's general election opponent if Scott wins the primary. Public campaign financing levels the playing field and creates the opportunity for more dialogue from more voices in state campaigns, not less.
Florida's law has worked well for members of both political parties. It enabled the late Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles to voluntarily limit his campaign contributions to $100 in 1994 and still match the spending by Republican Jeb Bush. It enabled then-Republican Charlie Crist to get more than $3.3 million in matching money for smaller contributions for his 2006 successful campaign for governor. The state's public campaign financing law should be made stronger and the spending cap should be lowered — not abolished.
Scott, a first-time candidate with no record of civic involvement, is not a serious contender for the Republican nomination for governor because of the strength of his ideas or his personality. He is a serious challenger because McCollum is a weak, unengaging candidate — and because he has swamped the airwaves with television ads. Public campaign financing does not silence Scott; it ensures his opponents will have an opportunity to speak. The candidate with the biggest checkbook should not be able to muffle everyone else.