Time was, all politicians up for election, whether it be to the Mosquito Control Board or U.S. Congress, had to submit a campaign treasurer’s report no later than 10 days after the quarterly period ended.
This made the 10th of January, April, July, and October as eagerly anticipated by political aficionados as Christmas morning is to children. Politicos would unwrap the presents of these reports to see how much this candidate raised or how much this can’t-miss candidate did not. We’d learn how a campaign’s money was being spent and assess which consultants were the pigs and which were the hogs.
Journalists relied on the clarity of these reports as much as candidates and consultants did. They were worth a week’s worth of stories to a reporter in a bind. Not only were there stories of who was leading and who was trailing, but, inevitably there were tales of spending gone awry.
Candidate John Smith spent how much on suits for himself? Candidate Richard Jones is paying his wife how much to work on the campaign?
In the horse race of campaigning — and the political journalism of handicapping the horse races — these reports were, besides gut instincts and internal polling, all many of us had to go on when determining who was winning and who was losing. The horse leading at the first and second quarter posts was most often the one standing in the winner’s circle.
Then came along transparency.
In 2013, the Florida Legislature passed a so-called elections reform package aimed at keeping the flow of money from finding the cracks in the campaign finance system.
The legislation imposed more frequent reporting deadlines for political candidates and raised the maximum contribution limits for the first time since 1991. The cap of $500 was increased to $3,000 for statewide candidates and to $1,000 for all other candidates.
The new law requires 24-hour disclosure of contributions in the closing days of statewide campaigns and more frequent year-round reporting requirements for candidates and committees. The bill outlawed legislator-controlled slush funds, called committees of continuous existence, but allowed lawmakers to create new political committees that can continue to accept unlimited contributions.
To smart campaigns, candidates, and consultant, the legislation is all carrot and no stick. That’s because they have gladly traded the ability to accept more money in exchange for having to report their contributions and expenditures monthly instead of quarterly.
Except that the political committees, like Rick Scott’s Let’s Get To Work vehicle that are accepting the majority of the money in the governor’s race, have to post online their contributions and expenditures every 10 days.
Except that federal candidates are, of course, exempt from the state law, and still report on a quarterly basis — but 15 days after the quarter ends, not 10.
The result of all this transparency? A surge of data so overwhelming that nobody knows how the horses are running anymore. Instead of them all racing at the same time on the same oval track, hundreds of horses are galloping in any number of directions.
Christina Johnson of On 3 Public Relations provides a godsend of a service that details in one document — as opposed to hunting and pecking through hundreds of pages online — the contributions, expenditures and general financial health of state candidates. She believes that one of the changes created by the new disclosure requirements can be measured at the beginning of individual campaigns.
“A candidate is under pressure to show money raised in the first 30 days, rather than the first 90 days, and must consider that press and public scrutiny in their filing strategy,” said Johnson. “No longer does a candidate have three months to ramp up for that first report that can put a candidate on the map – or behind the curve.”
As for the journalism that is suppose to provide some perspective on all these dollars and cents, well, good luck with that.
Just last week, it was reported that Charlie Crist and Rick Scott both reported raising in March $1.5 million. It was also reported that Crist’s political committee raised more than Scott’s, but Scott’s campaign raised more in hard dollars than Crist’s. And there was the Tampa Bay Times‘ political editor who tweeted, “Scott raises $17 m for the quarter to Crist’s $6m.” This was quite a stretch by the reporter as his numbers included money raised for the state parties, not all of which is dedicated to the gubernatorial race.
That so much money was being raised through the parties is a testament to the effort made to avoid the new transparency requirements because state parties still report only on a quarterly basis.
Meanwhile, all the other candidates are reporting monthly and will soon report more often than that. Reporters and observers can’t keep up with so much more information. Political journalists end up looking like Lucy in the candy factory.
Matt Dixon, the chief for the Scripps/Tribune capital bureau, isn’t ready to declare campaign finance stories dead, but he does acknowledge that the change to monthly reporting has altered how the number are viewed.
“They always required attention, but quarterly reporting is now the game,” said Dixon. “At a state level, political parties have always been important, but from a media perspective that’s been multiplied after the changes.”
Continued Dixon, considered a rising star among his colleagues in Tallahassee, “Political committee reports definitely matter, but individual candidate reports have much less significance.”
Is $25,000 raised in a month a lot or a little? What does it matter when a political committee can accept $25,000 checks, while candidates are capped. Who’s winning? Who’s losing?
No one knows anymore but the accountants.