T.W. Farnam
The Influence Industry

Florida group wants to end caps on campaign donations

A Florida good-government group is pushing a novel plan to fix a state political system overrun with untraceable money. It wants to remove a $500 cap on checks to campaigns and allow donors to contribute as much as they like.

Republican leaders in the state legislature seem intent on overhauling campaign funding, replacing a system that almost everyone agrees is dysfunctional. Under current rules, candidates can create amorphous political war chests — called Committees of Continuous Existence — to raise unlimited funds to pay for perks and political advertising for themselves and their allies.

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“Loopholes in the state’s campaign finance laws are giving Florida’s citizens the worst of all possible worlds,” the National Institute on Money in State Politics wrote in a 2011 report. “Rather than limiting the influence of large campaign donors, Florida’s laws simply drive them, in effect, underground.”

Integrity Florida, a good-government group formed last year, has proposed ending the charade by removing restrictions on donations and requiring that they be disclosed online within 24 hours.

The fate of the group’s proposal is worth paying attention to, because it ultimately could shape reform efforts on the federal level as well.

“Our view is that corruption does not like sunlight and disclosure is the key to accountability,” said Dan Krassner, the group’s director.

Conservatives fighting the regulation of political money have pushed to strip away contribution limits before, but the proposals have not been embraced by watchdog groups.

Two decades ago, Florida went the other direction, lowering contribution limits from $1,000 to $500 and making them among the nation’s most restrictive. But the limit is next to meaningless today because it is easily avoided. In 2010, for instance, Gov. Rick Scott (R) spent $17.5 million from wealthy donors using a political group called Let’s Get to Work.

The practice is widespread in both parties.

Krassner, a Republican who once worked for the Florida Chamber of Commerce, wrote Integrity Florida’s reform proposal with the group’s research director, Ben Wilcox, a liberal and the former director of the state’s Common Cause chapter.

Integrity Florida’s board, which includes representatives from the tea party and the League of Women Voters of Florida, unanimously endorsed the proposal, which was formed after consultation with labor unions and other liberal organizations as well as conservative ones, Krassner said.

But traditional reform groups, both locally and nationally, have attacked the idea as unworkable, saying that plugging the loopholes and providing public funding are better solutions than giving up on donation caps.

“A system of unlimited contributions is a system of legalized bribery,” said Fred Wertheimer, a longtime advocate for tighter restrictions on money in politics in federal elections. “That is an extraordinary tilt of our democracy to the wealthiest people in the country and serves their interest at the expense of regular citizens.”

The Supreme Court’s landmark Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision has reshaped political money since it was handed down three years ago this week, driving an increase in spending by independent interest groups that accept large donations from wealthy individuals and corporations. Because the case found a constitutional right to such spending, regulators at any level can’t restrict it as long as lawmakers aren’t involved in the groups.

Candidates at the federal level, and in states with contribution caps, complain that the status quo favors the independent groups with deep pockets, leaving politicians with diminished voices in their own campaigns.

“The political committees and parties can raise checks of any size, but the candidates can’t — that’s unfair,” Krassner said. “The goal is to have a balanced set of regulations for money in politics.”

Most traditional reform efforts advocate instead for public funding, where campaign contributions from small donors are matched several times over with taxpayer dollars.

Such a system exists in New York City, for example, but Krassner says it would be “dead on arrival” in the Florida legislature, where budget-cutting Republicans control both houses and the governor’s office.

In launching Integrity Florida, Krassner said he sought to create a reform group that would reach across the ideological spectrum. That’s something that doesn’t exist in Washington, where groups pushing for tighter restrictions on money in politics are often closely allied with Democrats. Republicans, by and large, ally with groups stripping away restrictions.

It’s not a stretch to look at Florida’s porous system and see the national 2012 campaign, in which “super PACs” collected and spent unlimited amounts — often at fundraisers with the benefiting candidates as featured speakers.

For previous Influence Industry columns, go to washingtonpost.com/
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