Campaign finance reform had been announced in November as a priority of new Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford (R-Wesley Chapel, pictured left with former Speaker Larry Cretul (R-Ocala)) who said that reform of the secretive flood of campaign cash is best addressed by removing caps on direct campaign donations (now $500) and requiring fast, full disclosure of donors, something certain entities can legally avoid.
Surprisingly, Integrity Florida, the newcomer watchdog group, has just submitted a report to the Florida House that fully endorses Weatherford’s two key ideas. Okay, it’s a mirror image of Weatherford’s viewpoint with a generous dollop of Integrity’s claim to non-partisanship thrown in. Click here to download their report.
The Orlando Sentinel’s Aaron Deslatte wasted no time with a very informative piece challenging some of the basic calculations in Integrity’s report. Deslatte also reviews the different entities that may have their hands on cash that ends up with a campaign, and describes how the process can be rather elaborate in shielding the true donor.
Since the US Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case opened the floodgates to a torrent of corporate campaign cash, many have raised grave questions about the integrity of political campaigns and candidates. A 2012 case tested a century old Montana state law restricting corporate campaign donations, giving the Supremes an opportunity to reconsider their dubious decision to give corporations the free speech (and campaign donation) rights of individuals. The court’s decision affirmed Citizens United, striking down the Montana law as unconstitutional. Bad news for states.
In the 2012 presidential campaign, voters were shocked to see massive amounts of cash being donated to candidates in the Republican primary process, like Sheldon Adelson literally keeping Newt Gingrich’s campaign alive with his own funding. It seemed every candidate needed a billionaire backer to stay afloat financially in a race defined by cash.
In Florida, Democrats well remember the bizarre 2010 US Senate candidacy of billionaire Jeff Greene who appeared out of nowhere, easily spent huge sums, forced Kendrick Meek to spend precious cash in a farcical primary, and then disappeared off the political map. Some question whether Greene was just a shill to undermine Meek’s funding. By the way, Greene is still a mess.
In short, what happens with campaign cash matters in a variety of ways. It affects races, campaigns, candidacies, candidate positions, opponents, etc. And 2012 showed one thing clearly; there is a lot of cash for politics. And surely it’s spent for a reason.
Both Weatherford and Integrity Florida start from the same premise, stated in the IF Report:
The state-level campaign finance system in Florida is fundamentally broken.
That’s a dramatic statement, but isn’t it broken in most places, certainly since Citizens United? The IF report claims that Florida’s campaign finance system amounts to “money laundering”:
… [The current system] has failed in preventing unlimited amounts of money from being spent to attempt to influence the outcomes of our state and local elections. Donors have a proven track record of adapting to any campaign finance regulatory schemes that seek to limit contributions or restrain spending.
Weatherford and IF seem to believe that removing the $500 campaign donation cap is a non-event since it is being circumvented so readily and donors always seem to find some way around restrictions. The IF report cites four states that have unlimited contributions, the disparate states of Missouri, Oregon, Utah, and Virginia, pointing to their politically mixed legislatures as proof that unlimited donations don’t result in any advantages. It’s an entirely specious and irrelevant argument. No one denies that Republicans already have a consistently huge cash advantage in Florida and unlimited donations will surely encourage that gap to remain, if not widen. Unlimited campaign cash is about who gets to buy the candidates for how much, not partisan political advantages. If they’re already bought, no caps simply increases the ante for the players.
Further, Weatherford and IF are convinced that 24 hour disclosure of donations will bring accountability. If there is a money laundering system – let’s not argue the point; it seems valid enough – do they seriously believe that new routes for cash won’t be found, passing through more obscure entities in a continuation of the current game plan? The IF report focuses on the operational feasibility of fast reporting – yes, it can be done. The IF report says absolutely nothing about impacts of fast reporting that would suggest it has any benefit of disclosure. In short, 24 hour full disclosure reporting is a great idea and should be done, but don’t think it’s a magic bean that will contribute much at all to lifting the covers on secretive donors.
Basically, Floridians are supposed to believe Weatherford and IF that there is some sort of worthwhile trade-off in lifting the $500 donation limit, making unlimited donations possible, in order to gain 24 hour full disclosure reporting. Do you see any merit?
From Weatherford, one expects posturing like this that would really drench the whole messed up system with bigger bucket loads of cash.
If Integrity Florida was serious, they might have presented a reform agenda that would serve to tame the cash flow and demand fast, full disclosure of donations. IF might have drawn the best examples from other states that have effected reforms. Instead, they somehow envisioned Weatherford’s agenda and produced an 8 page rubber stamp. Their organization did itself no favors with this report, and now IF deserves close scrutiny itself since its allegiance to seriously improving the political process seems doubtful.