The ritual is so routine it hardly draws attention but, in the ramp-up to the annual legislative session, Florida’s most politically powerful corporations seed hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign cash into the political committees of legislators.
Sometimes legislators hold fundraisers at swanky resorts or sporting events. Other times, they corner lobbyists over cocktails in a Tallahassee bar, usually during the busy committee weeks leading up to the regular session before the self-imposed fundraising ban takes effect at the start of the 60-day session.
But getting all the details on who got what is impossible. Florida law allows groups that accept contributions from corporations to legally distribute money to other political committees, including those controlled by legislators, without reporting the original source of the cash. The practice of shielding political spending from public view has fueled the “dark money” trend in politics that has allowed groups to launch political attacks in state and local campaigns without fear of being traced.
Gruters and Sen. Debbie Mayfield, R-Melbourne, have proposed legislation that would ban the practice of committees transferring funds to other committees, allowing the public to better see who gives and who gets millions in political contributions.
This year, two of the state’s biggest donors — Florida Power & Light and U.S. Sugar — contributed more than $2 million in the first two months, according to a Herald/Times review of Division of Elections records. FPL is attempting to win support for two bills to overturn unfavorable court rulings, and U.S. Sugar is working to oppose Senate President Joe Negron’s plan to buy farm land for a reservoir south of Lake Okeechobee.
So how much of FPL’s $1.5 million went to the eight members of the Senate committee that unanimously supported FPL’s bills last week? Senate Energy Committee chair Frank Artiles reported travel, drinks and food from FPL only after the Herald/Times disclosed it, but did the Miami Republican or other legislators on the committee receive any contributions from the company?
There is no way to know. Although committees must report all contributions and are barred from coordinating with donors about how to spend the money, the lack of transparency has prompted two legislators to propose bills to reform the system.
“Everything we do is a complete joke,” said Rep. Joe Gruters, R-Sarasota, who was elected last year after a divisive and close primary contest. “All the reporting is a waste of time if we have no transparency.” More here, where we look at what's disclosed about how much FPL and U.S. Sugar gave to whom here.Photo: AIF's annual pre-session cocktail party and fundraiser. By Scott Keeler, Tampa Bay Times.