With independent candidate Bud Chiles out of the Florida governor's race, there's no one left standing on the high ground of campaign finance reform. Republican Rick Scott lost his way in the primary, first by using his personal fortune to buy himself into the race and then by blocking his opponent's access to public campaign financing. Now Democrat Alex Sink has joined him with less than candid comments about her plans for a third-party committee she set up.
The result is voters can expect another barrage of advertising before the November election financed by vague-sounding political committees that make it almost impossible to discern what special interests are backing which candidates. But Floridians also deserve to know whether Scott, Sink or legislative candidates are committed to fixing the system if they are elected.
The Republican gubernatorial primary battle between Scott and Attorney General Bill McCollum illustrated how badly the state's campaign finance system is broken. Outdated limits on contributions to candidates' campaigns have helped give rise to third-party political committees. A network of such groups, including several controlled by legislative leaders, shuffled funds to help McCollum's own third-party committee raise money to try to counter the nearly $50 million Scott and his family put into winning the primary.
Now Scott's postprimary behavior — privately soliciting Tallahassee's lobbying corps for hefty donations despite his claims he's an outsider candidate — suggests he's hoping to also tap into such a scheme for the general election. Apparently, so is Sink. Two weeks after allies established a third-party committee to raise money for her gubernatorial bid, she evaded a reporter's question last week about whether she planned to use one.
Sink's duplicity came as she stood beside Chiles at a news conference announcing that the former candidate was embracing her campaign. Chiles had made campaign finance reform central to his campaign by refusing to accept any contributions from political committees — an honorable notion but one that is politically crippling when other candidates engage in the more creative tactics allowed under Florida's broken system.
Skeptics of reform contend Florida can't slow the spigot since courts have increasingly linked political contributions to free speech. But more can be done. Candidates can be barred from coordinating with third-party committees, limits on contributions to candidates' campaign accounts can be raised and more transparency can be demanded on how third-party groups raise and spend cash. The question now for candidates on the November ballot: Will you commit to any of these reforms, or are you comfortable keeping voters in the dark and allowing special interests to write enormous checks and expect something in return after you are elected?