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  1. Opinion

How do we reduce money's influence in politics? Here's how. | Paula Dockery

Paula Dockery of Lakeland served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years.
Published Jul. 19

By PAULA DOCKERY

A reporter recently contacted me for comment on Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Cabinet's travel to Israel. According to the latest estimate, $315,000 of the trip's cost was funded by corporate and individual donations that flowed through Enterprise Florida, a state agency.

I told her arrangements like those for the Israel trip are ripe for conflicts of interest. While governors like to go to foreign countries for trade missions, they shouldn't take money from businesses in our state even if those dollars are thinly disguised as Enterprise Florida funds.

Claiming that some good came out of the trip misses the point. The appropriate state officials should go to perform their official duties if there is benefit to the state. Those who lobby the governor and Cabinet or have business before the state should not be paying for elected officials' trips — directly or indirectly.

Enterprise Florida is the private/public partnership that replaced the Commerce Department as the economic development organization for the state. The corporate appointees on the 64-member board are a who's who of the business elite and politically connected. Each is required to contribute a hefty amount for a coveted spot on the powerful board.

Florida's elected officials are prohibited from accepting gifts from those that lobby them — even a meal. This arrangement skirts that ban with donations made through Enterprise Florida. It may be legal, but it doesn't look, feel or smell right.

That got me thinking. There are other ways of funneling money to elected officials for trips, meals, golfing, hunting, fishing — and it's all perfectly legal. It's done through monetary and in-kind contributions through the political parties.

In full disclosure, I attended fundraisers for the Republican Party of Florida when I was in office — you were expected to. These are not bad people giving money. In fact, they're the same folks we ask for money for our re-election. However, there are limits to how much they can give directly to campaigns — and that's a good thing.

Corporations, lobbyists and wealthy individuals are not limited by how much they can give to and through a party. That leads to great inequities in how our elected officials are chosen and how they govern. To whom much is given much is expected.

Political parties become beholden to the large corporations and special-interest groups that fund them. While there is some transparency in the flow of funds, there's not enough because money flows through other entities that have little transparency.

Unfortunately, being able to see how money flows is no longer the disinfectant it once was because elected officials are no longer shamed by it, news organizations have become cynical to it and voters have become accustomed to it.

Another money-laundering mechanism that is fraught with pay-to-play cronyism is the political action committee. Those seeking a leadership position need to show they can raise money, help those they want elected, and go after those who are a threat. They raise money through PACs.

Those who need something or want to be perceived as close to power are the ones funding the PACs.

Even good, honest, ethical people must play by these rules if they want to be in the game.

That's why it's imperative that we change the rules in Florida (and nationally) if we truly want to return representation to the people.

We can start by prohibiting elected officials and candidates from having a PAC, being associated with a PAC, raising money for a PAC, or taking money or an in-kind service from a PAC that exceeds what an individual can give.

Political parties should be prohibited from having a PAC, from taking money from a PAC, and from moving money around through outside PACs. Parties should be required to break down contributions and expenses and clearly report them with stiff penalties for noncompliance.

While impractical to limit the dollars political parties can accept, they should be prohibited from taking any foreign contributions directly or indirectly laundered through any individual or entity.

There must be real punishment for breaking the rules, so it doesn't become just a cost of doing business. In addition to fines, penalties must include jail and the loss of a seat for the individual or party involved.

(Of course reversing the 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United—which effectively freed corporations to spend money to directly advocate for the election or defeat of candidates—would limit their disproportionate influence.)

Let's start the conversation. I'm open to any other ideas.

Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland. She is now a registered NPA. PBDockery@gmail.com.

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