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Florida's flawed campaign finance laws come under scrutiny in House committee

Florida’s campaign finance system came under scrutiny Wednesday as the House Committee on Ethics and Elections began its review of the process that has allowed unchecked political committees to operate as candidate slush funds.

Gary Holland of the Division of Elections described the complex framework of rules and regulations that apply to candidates and political committees in Florida that has been morphed and modified as legislators respond to state and national court rulings.

The Committees of Continuing Existence, which were originally designed to be political committees for dues-gathering organizations, have become fundraising machines with the power to raise unlimited contributions and “basically give it to anybody,” Holland said.

Money can be spent on candidate travel, consultants, hotels and meals, gifts and even personal expenses, as long as they are deemed campaign related. It is a system that House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, believes if ripe for reform. He has called for the elimination of CCEs but the House has yet to draft legislation.

Integrity Florida, the independent ethics watchdog group, offered five fixes to the current system, including calling for the elimination of the $500 contribution limits to candidate campaigns in exchange for 24-hour disclosure.

“The reality is that money in politics today is dominated by unlimited donations with inadequate disclosure,’’ Krassner told the House committee. “Our goal should be to transition to a political financing system that maximizes transparency and accountability with candidates themselves becoming directly responsible for their own campaign activities.

“Let us trust the voters of Florida to evaluate the money individuals, companies and assciations give to candidates then reach their own judgment about candidates association with their funders.”

Integrity Florida’s proposals:

* eliminate contribution limits
* impose 24 hour disclosure for every contribution and expenditure made by a candidate or committee
* eliminate of CCEs, streamline of political committees to give them maximum flexibility to raise and spend money
* remove restrictions on what political parties spend but require maximum disclosure including -- which candidate is being supported or opposed by the expenditure
* create a single database for all state and local candidates contributions and expenditures

Krassner called for an end to "shell game" and "money laundering."

“Donors have a proven track record of adapting to any campaign finance regulatory schemes that seek to limit contributions or restrain spending,” Krassner said. “Candidates for office aggressively pursue unlimited checks in secret under current law.”

Krassner said the current system not only “resembles money laundering,’’ but it is stacked against individual donors “who have to follow strict $500 limits on what they can give a candidate while corporations play by a different set of rules.”

Based on an analysis of campaign finance records, Integrity Florida has concluded that the average state and local candidate in the last election cycle raised $96,000 while the average political committee raised more than $200,000.

The analysis also found that three out of four dollars of the $305 million in reported contributions in the last cycle flowed to committees and parties that can accept checks of unlimited amounts, while only one fourth went to individual campaigns which face restrictions.

Reported contributions do not equate to true expenditures, however, as the system allows money to be transferred from committees to campaigns without allowing for any reporting provision to follow the money.

“It’s time to admit that donation limits are not stopping any contributors from spending unlimited amounts of money,’’ Krassner said. “Money will always find innovative ways into the political environment and we have found no way to effectively limit it.”

Krassner also suggested that the state’s public campaign finance system, which provides candidates with matching money if they agree to limit their campaign spending, is broken.

The system was intended to restrain fundraising, he said, but is “moving toward irrelevance, because it simply functions as another source of campaign money courtesy of taxpayer funded subsidies.”

Rep. Katie Edwards, D-Plantation, pointedly asked what assurance lawmakers would have that any change to the system will change political behavior.

"I’m interested in how much time we’re going to spend on this issue and if we can’t hold ourselves out there to be ethical and above board in our actions then this whole exercise is moot as far as I’m concerned,” she said.

Krassner responded that he was encouraged by the focus on ethics reform by legislative leaders but bluntly said: “We have not seen any meaningful campaign finance reform proposals in our research that would have any impact on reducing corruption risk in our system.”

Rep. Alan Williams, D-Tallahassee, asked what would be the cost of created an enhanced campaign finance database? Krassner said the Division of Elections believes it would be a modest change to the existing system. "We don’t anticipate any cost,’’ he said.

Krassner said four states with no limits on contributions or candidates have not found that the system benefits one particular party over another.

For example, Missouri has a Democratic governor and a state legislature dominated by Republicans. Oregon has a Democratic governor and state Senate but its state House is evenly divided. Utah has a Republican governor with Republicans controlling the Legislature and Virginia has a Republican governor but a state Senate divided evenly between parties and a state House dominated by Republicans.