Campaign Finance Should be Local and Transparent

Jan 21, 2013 by

Florida’s legislature has started its committee meetings in advance of the 2013 legislative session. The big news out of Tallahassee so far has been the Senate’s desire for ethics reform.

I am cautiously optimistic that lawmakers will enact some reforms, and I am particularly pleased about the House’s desire for campaign finance reform, which I find intriguing.

Several years ago, while serving in the Senate, I tried to raise the contribution limits for political campaigns in Florida, which are among the lowest nationally. I did not think campaigns needed more money, quite the contrary. I proposed higher limits because I thought candidates needed more control of their campaigns, more responsibility for their message and more focus on their constituents instead of powerful people in Tallahassee.

Current efforts to change campaign finance laws cite transparency and accountability, which are valid and laudable goals. More importantly, though, is restoring control and responsibility to candidates and making them more responsive to the people in their districts rather than the leadership of their chamber, the lobbyists with big money and the political parties, which lately have been anointing the primary winners.

When constituents and community donors are the primary contributors, candidates will be more accountable to those they represent.

Under the current system, once candidates raise the maximum $500 contributions from businesses and individuals in their district, they turn to the money machines in Tallahassee.

Because the $500 limits apply to them as well, the political players employ various legal methods to circumvent the limitation. They “bundle” money by collecting checks from numerous individuals within an organization, handing over $10,000 or so with a single handshake.

Those with matters before the Legislature, or legislators seeking to lead their chamber or political consultants seeking candidates as clients can form numerous political action committees (PACs), committees of continuous existence (CCEs) and other committees allowing independent expenditures under section 527 of the federal tax code.

The most effective and legal use of these committees is to move money from one to another, disguising original contributions while skirting the $500 limit. In Florida alone, there are thousands of these committees. So even though the contributions and expenditures are public record, good luck following the money transfers from one to the other. The result: less transparency and more candidate interest in pleasing the benefactors.

The committees known as 527s can spend unlimited money in any campaign as long as they do so independently. That means they cannot coordinate directly with the campaign.

It would be naïve to believe that the consultants running these Super PACS are not doing precisely what the candidate or the campaign is anticipating. With little way of knowing which PAC is helping which candidate, it is almost impossible to prove that coordination occurred.

Also, the PAC can cut one check covering a large media buy or a consultant’s activity that includes the costs for numerous candidates disguising how much each candidate received. The result: A candidate can hide behind the “independent” nature of an inappropriate ad or mail piece.

When the party gets involved, party officials can offer nearly unlimited services. More importantly, the financial backing sends a strong signal to donors that they should not support the opponent even in a primary election. The result: candidates are more concerned about pleasing the party elites than their constituents.

So when a well respected organization that advocates for ethics in government proposes a change to campaign finance law that removes contribution limits to a candidate’s campaign account, resist the urge to dismiss it as allowing unlimited political contributions. Our existing campaign finance law not only allows that but also rewards it — but only to the politically connected and dependent.

In the 2012 elections, three out of every four dollars flowed through political committees and not directly to individual campaign accounts.

The Legislature should remove the direct contribution limit, as several other states have done, and limit or eliminate the “outside” money.

Then, all candidates would have the opportunity to raise the money they need, and they would be responsible for all ads, mail pieces and phone calls coming out of their campaign. Most importantly, they would rely less on special interests, Tallahassee insiders and the political establishment and more on the community members they hope to represent.

Perhaps the unlimited contribution limit could be a tradeoff for agreeing not to take campaign committee money. It’s time for an honest discussion on the topic without the reform-killing rhetoric.

I applaud Leadership Integrity and House Speaker Will Weatherford for daring to challenge the obscene status quo.

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