Public Campaign Financing - Is The System Worth Saving in Florida?

09/15/10 Lisa Marzilli
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The first initiative on the November ballot will ask voters if they want to repeal the public funding of candidates who run for Governor, Chief Financial Officer, Attorney General or Commissioner of Agriculture. Public campaign financing has been around since 1986 in Florida. It was designed to keep election spending in check and level the playing field for qualified candidates. Ben Wilcox says it did a pretty good job of doing that until Tallahassee lawmakers began undermining the system a few years ago.

“Back in 2005 the Legislature dramatically raised the voluntary spending limits, which candidates have to agree to, to qualify for public financing. In the Governor’s race it went from like $6 million up to $24 million, and that was really the whole intent of the system was to hold down the cost of campaigns."

Wilcox used to head the Florida chapter of Common Cause, a government watchdog and advocate for election reform. He thinks Amendment One is an unfair question to ask voters.

“By putting this on the ballot now it’s not really a fair question to be asking people because the system isn’t functioning as it should and was intended to function.”

While GOP lawmakers are busy bashing public campaign financing as "welfare for politicians” many of them are also feeding at its trough. According to the Florida Division of Elections website, almost 80 percent of the $5.3 million in matching funds distributed during the most recent primary went to Republican candidates. Although both sides agree Florida’s campaign finance system is broken, those who study election law, like Jessica Levinson believe the system is worth saving despite its flaws.

“To the extent that it gives any candidate the ability to run a competitive race; good, qualified candidates who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity, then it still does serve a purpose.”

Levinson is Director of Political Reform at the Center for Governmental Studies, a non profit think tank. In 2008 Levinson authored a series of reports focusing on 7 state election systems.

“Florida’s law is unquestionably in need of reform, the major problem being that for all intents and purposes there really are no expenditure limits. The expenditure limits are so high that candidates can receive the taxpayer dollars, which are increasingly precious as virtually all states are facing fiscal problems, and then they can also receive private funds and spend virtually unlimited amounts. So what Florida really needs to do to make this program more effective is, number one, reduce the expenditure limits so candidates who decide to take the taxpayer dollars cannot also take basically unlimited private contributions.”

Levinson’s report also recommends closing the loopholes on the shady 527’s; you know, the one’s with the righteous sounding names like Rick Scott’s “Let’s Get to Work” and Alex Sink’s newly formed “Hold Them Accountable” committees. Levinson says the 527’s enable donors to hide their identity while funneling unlimited amounts of cash to their candidate.

“Disclosure laws that allow potential voters to know exactly where the money’s coming from and how it’s being spent by these independent expenditure groups are vitally important. It gives the voters so much information about the political dialogue for them to know the identity of those who are spending money.”

Levinson acknowledges that campaign finance reform is not easily done given the fact that those in control have little incentive to change a system that directly benefits them.

“That’s such a problem with campaign finance law and other governance reforms that may threaten the jobs of incumbents. Unfortunately what that means is it really takes a very active and alert citizenry to say to elected officials, “We’re not happy with the system” and to make it an issue that’s really at the forefront of the campaign, and to say “You should not be getting my hard earned money if you’re not going to use it in efficient ways for your campaign.” So I really think it’s going to take public outcry and going to take the candidates seeing that this is an issue that’s on the forefront of the minds of the voters.”

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