The drive to change the state’s loophole-ridden campaign finance laws continues to gather steam in the state Legislature, thanks to support from the presiding officers of the House and Senate who want to eliminate some of the most abusive practices in the system.
But if the ultimate goal of this effort is to reduce the influence of money in politics — as it should be — lawmakers seem to be heading in the wrong direction. Instead of reducing the allowable amount of contributions to political campaigns, legislators are increasing the limits. In some cases, the rule would be no limit at all — just back the dump truck full of money up to the door and let the pols have it.
This is not reform.
Florida has some dandy campaign finance laws. A candidate may not accept more than $500 from any single contributor. Another law, approved in 2005, bans gifts from lobbyists.
But never mind all that. Florida law also establishes what is known as a Committee of Continuous Existence, a fancy name for a legal slush fund that can receive virtually unlimited amounts of cash. The money can be used for a variety of questionable purposes that may or may not be related to actual campaigning.
The upside of the current reform effort is the elimination of these CCEs. These accounting gimmicks allow influence peddlers to funnel cash to lawmakers by another route, thus undermining the positive effect of other legislative limits. House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, has made elimination of the CCEs a priority, but the bill he shepherded to passage in the House last week is fatally flawed.
In exchange for eliminating CCEs, the measure raises the cap on contributions to candidates’ political committees from $500 to unlimited amounts, though it requires that all expenses be related to the campaign.
Under the bill, contributions for statewide candidates (as opposed to campaign committees) would increase from $500 per election to $5,000 for statewide candidates and $3,000 for everyone else. Candidates would also be able to carry over up to $10,000 in excess campaign contributions to their next campaign.
Parties, political committees and candidates would also face accelerated disclosure requirements that would force them to release their campaign finance records every day during the final 10 days of the campaign, and weekly for the two months prior to that.
Supporters say this will make campaign funding more transparent, but opponents say the package of changes gives a huge advantage to incumbents. They would likely receive the biggest contributions and be given a running start over the competition by rolling over their excess campaign funds. The result would be to accelerate the race for cash, allowing candidates to accumulate larger war chests from fewer contributors.
Doing away with CCEs is a good thing. But both the House bill and a companion version in the Senate will shift much of the power, including the ability to collect unlimited contributions, from CCEs to super Political Action Committees and political parties. They can rake in the money in the same way, thus nullifying the practical aspect of abolishing CCEs.
The result, by and large, is to exchange one money pipeline for another without making a practical improvement in campaign financing. Voters should let their lawmakers know this is not what they consider genuine reform. By all means, abolish the CCEs, but keep reasonable limits on all political contributions.