Under the watchword of "transparency" Republican senators just pushed through a bill that would reinstitute what were once known as "leadership funds" that allow legislative leaders to raise unlimited sums for campaign purposes through the political parties. Final vote: 25-11.
Lawmakers can raise unlimited sums now, but only on behalf of the party. And they have less control over how the money gets spent. They can also raise unlimited amounts of money through Committees of Continuous Existence, but they're limited in how much they can spend, namely $500 per candidate. With leadership funds, they can spend $25,000 on a candidate.
Senate budget chief J.D. Alexander, R-Lake Wales, said the new leadership funds will allow more people to see how legislative leaders are raising and spending money through the party. Currently, there's no way to see how much party money has been raised by or earmarked for legislators. The legislation follows the controversial reign of Jim Greer at the Republican Party of Florida.
Sen. Dan Gelber, D-Miami Beach, said the bill was a "horrible idea" because it offered little in the way of reform for campaign finance.
"We have a system that would shock Floridians," Gelber said. "You’re going to have staffers going to the folks out there who have interests that they want us to look at and bills that they want us to hear and amendments they want us to pass. And they are going to be taking money from them during session for your leadership accounts. That is what’s going to happen. So whatever fiction you want to get rid of, you are creating a new and much more dangerous one to this process.”
Another reason Democrats oppose the legislation: They're in the minority. So if a special-interest check is transparently cut to a minority-party fund, the majority party can play havoc with the contributor.
Gelber offered an amendment to ensure that leadership funds mirror a state law on CCEs that requires lawmakers to post contribution and expenditure data online within 10 days of receiving or cutting a check. Under the new leadership funds law, the contributions and expenditures will be reported quarterly along with political party campaign data.
"If all this bill does is seek transparency and accountability you should want this," Gelber said. "If someone writes a big check… that should be online."
The amendment was shot down. So was another Gelber amendment to ban coordination between a campaign and an Electioneering Communications Organizations, known as 527s in federal parlance. That, too, was rejected by Republicans on a voice vote.
"We’ve allowed coordination for six years now… It’s worked reasonably well," Alexander said. He said he didn't want to step on the "free and open dialogue" of a campaign.
Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Indialantic, said this legislation was part of the Senate's broader effort to bring "transparency," and noted that Alexander instituted the Transparency Florida website to give citizens more access to the budget process. Haridopolos said citizens will now be able to have a better view of how their legislators raise and spend money.
"You can see the money raised by whom and how it was spent," Haridopolos said. "This is transparency that everyone is looking for... I could not ask for a better piece of legislation."
Indeed. Haridopolos will be the first incoming Senate President next year who can control a leadership fund.