A must-read guest essay: A campaign finance conspiracy?

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Editor’s note: The following is a special guest essay byYury Konnikov and Fred Markham of theFlorida Initiative for Electoral Reform.

Despite an average incumbent re-election rate of 97.5% in Florida, fundraising records are broken every single election cycle. This phenomenon limits the access of average people to run for political office, as most are neither independently wealthy nor have the connections to that 0.36% of the U.S. population that donated 84% of federal campaign funds in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. The Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform (FLIER) believes the rising flood of campaign cash, among other features of Florida? stagnant and plutocratic electoral system, severely undermines representative democracy. Florida legislators like Sen. Miguel Diaz de la Portilla and Rep. Seth McKeel have proposed ?olutions?that would provide new, more direct ways to funnel even more special interest money to politicians and campaigns. These proposals would reverse 1992 reforms and permit special interests to once again directly invest in campaign funds controlled by legislative leaders of both parties, with per person contribution limits that are 2000% higher than those allowed today.

“Elections are generally getting more expensive,” said Sen. Diaz de la Portilla to the St. Petersburg Times on March 21st. His solution, SB 1690, is to do away with the low $500 per donor per election cap and introduce a tiered system of $10,000 to candidates for governor, $5,000 to Cabinet candidates, $2,500 to candidates for the Legislature and $1,000 for local office. Diaz de la Portilla told Post on Politics that this would allow candidates to ?pend a lot less time making phone calls for contributions, keeping track of contributions and more time talking to voters.?

Simultaneously, CS/HB 1207, sponsored by Rep. Seth McKeel in 2010 and vetoed by former Gov. Charlie Crist, got the go ahead for a veto override. The bill re-established leadership funds under the new name of ?ffiliated party committees? Leadership funds were banned in 1992 and referred to as ?lush funds?when newspaper reports drew links between approved legislation and contributions. They allowed legislative leaders to collect campaign contributions from special interests without limit and distribute the money to preferred primary and general election candidates. McKeel added new provisions for transparency requiring reporting and disclosure at regular quarterly intervals. However, FLIER believes this transparency will be inconsequential as both parties in the non-competitive, two-party system already partake in raising funds from special interests. As demonstrated in Carolyn Warner? extensive 2005 study, ?he Corruption of Campaign and Party Finance Laws,?tinkering with limits on contributions or spending will always be undermined by politicians and parties seeking to cheat the constraints, even colluding together so that cheating is safe for all concerned.

Perhaps not coincidentally these Republican proposals are accompanied by HB 1021, sponsored by Rep. Chris Dorworth, and its companion SB 830, sponsored by Sen. John Thrasher. Referred to as ?aycheck Protection? it aims to expressly stifle the ability of labor unions to collect membership dues. Unions, as a special interest group, give funds almost exclusively to the Republicans?only ?iable?two-party opponents, Democrats. While attempting to funnel more money to fund their own continued, artificially disproportionate majority in the Legislature, Republicans are looking to undermine those special interests that significantly bankroll their only competition.

Ironically, in 1992, when the halfhearted bi-partisan reforms presently being reversed by SB 1690 and CS/HB 1207 were instituted, Democrats had the disproportionate control of the Legislature. If Republicans think going back to the instruments of the past, while undercutting a special interest tied to their opponents, will secure their majority, history tells us they are wrong. The functioning two-party plutocracy is like a seesaw that pivots on the money of special interests and there is only so much time before those political investors will sense a shift in the political winds and transfer the greater bulk of their money to the other side of that seesaw.

FLIER strongly believes that SB 1690 and CS/HB 1207 are anti-democratic measures that will add greater dysfunction to an already dysfunctional system. Reverting to previous problems, while pretending they are ?eforms? will not fix the existing problems. If legislators are interested in offering more than simply lip service to the word ?emocracy? they should find and enact SB 2264, the Florida Clean Elections Act, sponsored by then Sen. Frederica Wilson in 2007. This bill would establish a system by which candidates have the option of running campaigns using public funds if they are willing to reject all private financing. Candidates would first qualify by collecting a threshold number of small (typically $5) donations from registered voters in their district. The qualifying contributions can only be collected by volunteers, not paid staff. The threshold number is set large enough to prevent non-serious candidates from competing. Qualified candidates then agree to neither accept nor use private money in their campaigns and receive an amount of public money that will ensure they can run a competitive campaign.

Such ?lean Elections?models have already been successfully implemented in Maine and Arizona, as well as other jurisdictions. In Maine, over three quarters of legislators have used this system to mount successful campaigns while foregoing private fundraising from special interests. This is entirely different from the improperly named and exploited ?ublic financing?scheme that currently exists in Florida, which benefits only those candidates who are already well funded by special interests.

We must recognize Sen. Diaz de la Portilla? and Rep. McKeel? proposals for what they are; a poorly disguised, cynical, and anti-democratic attempt to directly funnel much greater sums of special interest money to election campaigns in return for favorable legislation.

The Florida Initiative for Electoral Reform is a non-partisan coalition of groups and individuals recognizing the need for electoral reforms to enrich and expand democracy in our state and its localities with accessibility for the average person, a competitive political environment, and pluralism in policy and decision making. For more information please visithttp://www.floridaelectoralreform.org or e-mail[email protected].

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.