Support mounts to allow unlimited political contributions in Florida

Published Jan. 16, 2013

TALLAHASSEE — Florida's campaign finance system is so riddled with holes that a state ethics watchdog group will urge lawmakers today to open the spigot and let an unlimited amount of cash gush into campaign coffers.

Integrity Florida, a nonprofit, independent ethics advocacy organization, will tell the House Ethics and Elections Committee that the state should allow no-limits campaign finance in exchange for public disclosure of all donors.

Disclosure would be made within 24 hours of every check deposited to any state or local campaign account and every expenditure paid. The group also wants the elimination of powerful political slush funds that whitewash funds and shield donors, known as Committees of Continuous Existence.

"There is no evidence that caps on contributions are effective,'' said Dan Krassner, executive director of Integrity Florida. "The money is going to find its way into the system. It is broken in every possible way."

House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, who has made eliminating CCEs a political priority, told the Times/Herald that he is "open to considering" the removal of contribution limits.

"We already have a system that allows for unlimited money,'' he said.

Republican Party chairman Lenny Curry said he supports any proposal "that creates more transparency" but would leave it to lawmakers to work out the details.

Democratic political consultant Steve Schale said ending donation limits and requiring fast-track disclosure "is the only way to get rid of the fiction of limits and open the gates of sunshine."

The proposal was unanimously supported by the board of Integrity Florida, which includes the president of the Northwest Florida Tea Party, Mike Hill; the executive director of the First Amendment Foundation, Barbara Petersen; and retired associate editor of the Times, Martin Dyckman.

For about two decades, Florida has required political contributors to limit donations to candidates to $500 in the primary and another $500 in the general election. But those limits have been outmatched by a flood of money pouring into the system in the era of super PACs and the 2010 landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision to recognize corporate contributions as political speech.

In the 2011-12 election cycle, Integrity Florida found that $230 million of the $306 million raised — about three out of four dollars — went to parties and political committees, which skirt the campaign finance limits and were subject to fewer disclosure rules.

Many of those CCEs are controlled by legislators and used to raise money, which they transfer to other campaigns or use to pay for meals, travel, car expenses and even gifts. The process has allowed the Legislature's most powerful lawmakers to amass more clout during the election cycle as they transfer funds to the campaigns and committees of other members in an attempt to consolidate power.

In the last cycle, lawmakers who have risen to the most powerful posts in the House and Senate raised more money in their political committees than most special interest groups in Florida. Most of the money was transferred to other accounts, leaving the public no clear trail to follow the money.

The Senate Ethics and Elections Committee chairman, Sen. Jack Latvala, R-Clearwater, said he wants to close those spending loopholes by banning the use of CCE funds on gifts and meals. But he does not want to eliminate CCEs. Latvala is also not a fan of removing the contribution limit because he believes the $1,000 per-cycle contribution cap is working fine.

Ethics groups counter that the timely disclosure of the mega-checks will allow the public to keep politicians accountable for their campaign cash. But the proposal has holes. For example, it does not require donors to name which candidate or campaign their money is intended to help. Krassner said that is because unions and trade groups collect money without knowing which candidate will ultimately get it.

Integrity Florida's proposal would keep two kinds of political committees: the political action committees, which can be formed by trade associations as well as candidates to pay for candidate expenses, and the electioneering and communications organizations that pay for television ads, mailers and other campaign expenses allowed under federal law.

Only four states give candidates the right to receive unlimited campaign cash from any source: Virginia, Utah, Oregon and, most recently, Missouri. Other states allow for unlimited contributions to candidates, but some, like Texas, bar unlimited contributions from corporations.

Most of those states have experienced mixed results. Missouri, which lifted its campaign finance limits in 2008, had the sixth-most expensive election season of any state in 2012, according to the National Institute on Money in Politics. The change also allowed mega-donors to play a super-sized role in Missouri elections as one individual who opposes the state income tax, St. Louis businessman Rex Sinquefield, donated $20 million to state and local campaigns over four years.

That worries, Rod Smith, chairman of the Democratic Party of Florida. He said he has not studied the proposals but remains hopeful one can be found to limit money in campaign accounts.

"I don't want to just go to transparency and throw my hands up and say there is no way to have meaningful limitations,'' said Smith who is retiring as party chairman next weekend.