The 2014 session of the Florida Legislature is now behind us. As is always the case, there were winners and there were losers. The big winners this year … Big Money Special Interests. The big losers … The People of Florida.
Meaningful campaign finance reform must be a top priority in the 2015 legislative session. Today, we are announcing the launch of our “Come Clean In 2015” campaign. We have chosen this venue, the quarterly meeting of the RPOF to make this announcement because our party has been part of the problem. Our party now needs to be part of the solution. We are calling on the Republican Party of Florida to join us in demanding changes that will restore power over the legislative process to the people of Florida.
We are not here to accuse the party or any individual legislator of any illegal activity and we are not trying to suggest that the problem is limited to the Republican Party or Republican legislators. The Democrat Party is culpable as well but Republicans control both houses of the legislature and the Governor’s office so the money at play naturally gravitates in much larger amounts in our direction. Democrats don’t get a pass. If they were the party in power they would no doubt use this advantage in much the same way that the Republicans have. But as Republicans, we need to hold ourselves to a higher standard. In so doing, we have an opportunity to win back the confidence and the trust of the people of Florida.
The “Come Clean in 2015” campaign is a work in progress. We haven’t built the website yet. We haven’t launched the Face Book page and we haven’t built a reform coalition. That will all happen over the next 60 days. Here’s what we have done. We have identified the problem, and we have crafted the solution.
The problem is the environment created by our campaign finance statutes. Money flows freely in six and seven figure amounts from corporations and wealthy individuals, first into, and then back and forth, between the party and political committees and ECOs controlled by individual legislators or their cronies. These PCs and ECOs can spend this money in unlimited amounts on campaign expenses without identifying which candidate’s campaigns the money is being spent for. No limits. No transparency. No accountability. A CPA would have a difficult time following the money trail and identifying the contributors or the ultimate beneficiaries of the spent funds.
It stands to reason that the most prolific fund raisers are the designated leaders in the house and senate. The Speaker of the House and the Senate President, as well as the majority and minority leaders in both chambers raise millions of dollars that they use to keep rank and file members in line. Members are rewarded with generous contributions when up for reelection, or in some cases punished by the withholding of funds. In extreme cases leaders will make contributions to an incumbents challenger.
This power is exercised in Republican primaries. There is no limit on the amount that can be contributed. It is not uncommon for an incumbent on the verge of losing his primary to suddenly be saved by a $50,000 contribution, or more, from the House Speaker or the Senate President to a PC controlled by the legislator. Parties are allowed to contribute up to $50,000 directly to a primary candidate as well. The power and right of the voters living in a particular district to choose their own party nominee is infringed as a result. The legislator on the receiving end of this monetary life line feels allegiance to the leadership and the party over the voters of his or her district. This is unacceptable.
This practice concentrates enormous power into the hands of only a very few leaders who are in a position to decide the fate of virtually every piece of legislation. Major issues are decided, and in some cases bought, before the legislative session even begins. As examples consider the outcomes on red light camera legislation and legislation to stop or slow down the implementation of Common Core.
We do not take exception to a certain level of authority and power residing in the offices of legislative leadership. This is necessary to ensure the functionality of a deliberative body. It is the excessive level of power and control accumulated as a result of the corrupting influence of special interest money that we take exception to. It is clear that the people of Florida have lost their ability to influence the outcome of legislation vital to their interests.
A ruling class has been created in Tallahassee consisting of the Senate President, the House Speaker and a few powerful lieutenants. We believe a healthier balance of power needs to be restored between leadership and the members. More importantly, the balance of power needs to be restored between the legislature in general and the people of Florida. The “legal laundering” of campaign contributions and special interest money must end.
So what is the solution. There are four essential elements that we have identified as necessary for meaningful campaign finance reform:
1. Elimination of Affiliated Party Committees, aka, “Leadership Funds”.
Only incoming legislative leaders such as the Senate President and the House Speaker can establish an APC. These leaders raise unlimited sums of money through these committees, taking in unlimited individual contributions. These funds are then used in conjunction with other funds raised by the parties to influence, if not dictate, the outcome of House or Senate primary contests. Primaries should be decided by the voters of the district, not by legislative leaders and party leadership in Tallahassee.
2. Prohibit Incumbent Legislators or candidates from establishing or controlling a Political Committee or an Electioneering Communications Organization.
Campaign finance reforms enacted during the 2013 legislative session have done nothing to weaken the influence of special interest money over the legislative process. Leadership claimed credit for campaign finance reform because they eliminated Committees of Continuous Existence. However, the same legislation that eliminated CCEs also eliminated the limits on contributions to political committees. There had been a $500 per election limit. The legislation amended the statute to allow unlimited contributions to any political committee and also provided that existing CCEs could contribute their entire fund balance into a PC. Every legislator operating a CCE was able to roll their fund balance into a newly formed or existing PC and continue taking unlimited contributions. The more things change, the more they remain the same.
3. Prohibit the Parties, Political Committees and Electioneering Communications Organizations from making unlimited contributions to each other.
Currently these unlimited contributions between the parties, PCs and ECOs serve to obscure the actual source of the funds being used by these various entities. A PC receiving a six figure contribution from the party for instance just has to show the party as the contributor. But who made the original contribution to the party? What if the party makes a contribution to a PC that then makes a contribution to an ECO? The public would have to work their way through the reports of three separate entities in order to learn the original source of the funds.
4. Prohibit political parties from contributing to candidates in primaries.
Current law allows political parties to contribute up to $50,000 directly to candidates in a primary election. There have been many instances of challengers losing to incumbents by only a few hundred votes, even after a last minute infusion of cash from the party to the incumbent. Typically these contributions come from the party at the direction of House or Senate leadership seeking to protect the incumbent and maintain their control over their respective chambers. The inverse can also be true. Leadership can direct funds to a challenger as a way of punishing an incumbent that has failed to tow the leadership line. Again, primaries should be decided by the voters of the district, free from undue influence exercised by legislative or party leadership.
These are the changes that we believe are necessary to restore the power and influence of the people of Florida over the legislative process. We send people to Tallahassee to execute the will of the people, not to protect the interests of the rich and powerful.