To Ban or Not to Ban … That Is the Quandary

Apr 11, 2013 by

Legislators are wisely prohibited from raising campaign funds during the 60-day legislative session. During that time lawmakers are contemplating policy and funding decisions that will affect many industries and special interests. The fundraising ban was put in place to avoid, at a minimum, the appearance of impropriety, undue influence or favoritism.

If that’s the case, shouldn’t the fundraising ban extend to the numerous committee weeks prior to session, when legislative bills are introduced, amended and voted on?

Another major player during the legislative session is the governor, who has the power to stop any piece of legislation and every line item of the budget with his veto pen. However, according to state law, he is permitted to raise campaign cash during this same period. One could argue that since the governor, as gatekeeper, has the final say on whether a bill lives or dies, accepting campaign contributions, party money or political committee money during session could easily give the appearance of “pay to play” or “quid pro quo.”

Why doesn’t the same fundraising ban apply to the state’s top executive since he plays such a significant role in the disposition of bills?

Legislators are also prohibited from accepting any gifts from those who lobby for or work for an entity that has an issue before the Legislature. That includes everyone from a major corporation like AT&T to a small business owner to a not-for-profit organization like Big Brothers/Big Sisters. You can rest assured that the gift ban prevents legislators from taking lavish trips, free food or even a cup of coffee. That should certainly stop the influence peddling.

But wait, there is a legal exception to this rule, one that has been condoned by legislative leaders and exploited by those wishing to ascend the legislative ladder. Some legislators have started their own Committee of Continuous Existence (CCE), a legal entity that is permitted to accept large sums of money from virtually any individual or corporation, even those that have issues before the Legislature.

Unlike a direct contribution to a legislator’s campaign, which has a $500 limit, there is no limit to contributions to a Committee of Continuous Existence. Funds collected can be used for entertaining, travel and even contributions up to $500 to political campaigns.

While not its primary purpose, it also allows legislators to circumvent the gift ban and use money given by a lobbyist to enjoy the same lavish meal that a legislator without a Committee of Continuous Existence legally cannot.

So while it is illegal to accept a drink from a lobbyist under the gift ban, it is perfectly acceptable to accept $25,000 or even $100,000 from the same lobbyist for your Committee of Continuous Existence. And then, if you’re still thirsty, you can use some of the money legally contributed to buy your own drink and some for your colleagues and you can invite that lobbyist to join you.

Isn’t it time to end this farce and ban the use of CCEs by elected officials?

While some legislators have their CCEs, this governor has his own political committee, “Let’s Get to Work.” He can accept checks in unlimited amounts because “Let’s Get to Work” is an electioneering communications organization that’s not subject to contribution limits.

He’s raised nearly $10 million for his reelection campaign, including $4.6 million in the first three months of the year, the heart of committee weeks and the legislative session.

In March, his largest contribution, $500,000, came from the William L. Edwards Trust. Other friends were also generous, including Blue Cross/Blue Shield, $237,500; U.S. Sugar, $100,000; Heritage P & C Insurance Co., $100,000; Florida Chamber, $50,000; United Automobile Insurance Co., $50,000, and the list goes on.

Shouldn’t this practice be banned — particularly during the legislative session?

House Speaker Will Weatherford announced that the House would put forth a campaign finance reform package that would get rid of CCEs while increasing the decades-old $500 campaign contribution limit that is among the lowest nationally.

The governor, in a stunning moment that defies reality, expressed opposition to raising these contribution caps in a statement to The Miami Herald/Tampa Bay Times.

“What we’ve told the House is that when they do that they reduce the importance of the individual who can only write a $500 check, so I think they ought to really look at that a lot more closely.”

Huh? What?

In another jaw-dropping response, his spokeswoman told the Florida Times-Union, “Significantly increasing these limits concentrates more power to the already powerful and hurts the ability of individual citizens to be a part of the process.”

Wow! In that case, I’m sure the governor would be receptive to implementing a voluntary contribution cap of $500 per individual or corporation to his political committee and will be refunding $499,500 to Mr. Edwards, $237,000 to Blue Cross/Blue Shield, $99,500 to U.S. Sugar and so on, so that those individual citizens who can only contribute $500 or less can remain an important part of the process.

Some skeptics might see hypocrisy in this and question why he is trying to prevent opponents from benefitting from the higher limits. However, I’m sure he’s more altruistic than that.

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