Created to “level the playing field” and open the elections process to less affluent candidates, Florida’s system of public campaign financing would likely go away if voters on Nov. 2 pass Amendment 1.
Put on the ballot by the Republican-controlled Legislature, Amendment 1 would repeal a measure put in the state constitution in 1998 that requires the state to provide a system of public matching funds to candidates for public office.
Florida has operated some system of public campaign financing since 1986 and has so far pumped in more than $27 million in taxpayer money into political campaigns. To pass, Amendment 1 must be approved by 60 percent of voters.
Backers of Amendment 1, a group that includes Associated Industries of Florida, say taxpayers should not be on the hook to pay for political campaigns. With the economy still in the tank, such public support is even more undesirable as other critical needs in education, social services and other critical state functions go unmet.
Further, they say a major goal of campaign finance laws – to limit spending on elections - has not occurred.
“The desired attempt has not been accomplished,” Rep. Alan Hays, R-Umatilla and House sponsor of the amendment told the News Service. “This program does not limit political campaign spending. Just look at the last few campaign cycles. With such a lack of results, this is an idea whose time has passed.”
Critics of Amendment 1, a coalition of voters’ advocacy groups including the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and Common Cause, say public financing plays a critical role in expanding the pool of potential political candidates who would otherwise be precluded from running.
Instead of jettisoning the entire system, public financing advocates have urged lawmakers to make changes to address loopholes in the system they say still serves a laudable public purpose.
"The public supports the goals of a good, well-run public financing system," Ben Wilcox, then executive director of Common Cause Florida, told lawmakers in 2009 during debate on the measure.
The constitutional debate comes as the state’s public financing system has come under fire in court. Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott filed a federal lawsuit against a provision of the state law that allowed his primary opponent, Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum, to get a dollar for every dollar Scott raised over a $24.9 million spending cap, a threshold Scott reached a month before the Aug 24 Republican primary.
A three-judge panel of the 11th U.S Circuit Court of Appeals in July sided with Scott by reversing Tallahassee-area U.S. District Judge Robert Hinkle, who had upheld the cap. Scott argued the limit restricted his constitutional right to free speech and equal protection under the law.
Though public financing has been around since the 1980s, voters in 1998 approved a constitutional requirement to publicly fund campaigns as part of a larger group of election law changes proposed by the Constitutional Revision Commission. After 64 percent of voters approved the measure, lawmakers hammered out the details and put those in state law.
To receive public funds, a candidate for statewide office must have opposition and agree to spend no more than $2 per registered voter for the gubernatorial race and $1 per voter for Cabinet races.
The funding formula also gives publicly financed candidates a dollar for dollar match if their opponent in 2010 spent more than that upper limit – which this year based on the number of voters was $24.9 million in the governor’s race and $12.5 million for other Cabinet races.
Public financing has been under assault across the country as courts try to balance the benefits of expanding the pool of potential candidates with First Amendment rights. Scott, for example, argued that Florida law inhibited his free speech by giving his opponent taxpayer money to, in essence, negate his own political speech. The U.S. Supreme Court has held for several years that political spending is equal to political speech.
If approved, public financing would remain in effect until lawmakers repeal the statutes set up following the 1998 amendment. The expected leaders of the next Legislature, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, and Rep. Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park, both favor the abolition of publicly funded campaigns.