To fix Florida’s campaign finance system, do not invite the fox into the henhouse

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In a pivotal story arc on HBO’s seminal series, The Wire, veteran police commander Howard “Bunny” Colvin attempts to effect some real change in the troubled neighborhoods for which he has long been responsible. Without the knowledge of central command, Colvin sets up areas where police would monitor, but not punish drug trade.  The police crack down severely on violence in these areas, and also on drug trafficking elsewhere in the city. For many weeks, Colvin’s experiment works, and crime is reduced. However, Colvin’ superiors, the media, and city politicians eventually find out about the arrangement, and the “Hamsterdam” experiment ends.

The corridors of power in Tallahassee are very different from the hard streets of Baltimore, but watching my friend Dan Krassner, the earnest executive director of the self-styled watchdog group Integrity Florida, testify before the House Ethics and Elections Committee on Wednesday, I could not help but be reminded of Bunny Colvin’s experiment. Only Krassner does not want to decriminalize drug use, he wants to repair Florida’s broken campaign finance laws.

That it is Integrity Florida proposing to eliminate the $500 cap on contributions to state political candidates says everything you need to know about just how broken are Florida’ campaign finance regulations. Integrity Florida is the good guys. If the system is that corrupted that the white-hatters are throwing their hands up into the air, imagine how rotten things have really become.

Like the police officer weary from the never-ending so-called War on Drugs, Krassner and many, many others are frustrated with a system which barely functions.

But is lifting the cap on contributions, while requiring near real-time reporting of all contributions (as opposed to on a quarterly basis), the best solution for solving what ails campaign finance laws? Yes it is, but for the wrong reasons.

The real culprit are the Committees of Continued Existence,  which, as the Florida Division of Elections Gary Holland explained during testimony on Wednesday, were originally designed to be political committees for dues-gathering organizations, but have become fundraising machines with the power to raise unlimited contributions and “basically give it to anybody.”

In reality, CCEs are really nothing more than political washing machines via which massive contributions from well-financed companies, individuals and interest can launder money. Because Company X is limited to giving $500 per election cycle to a candidate, it gives $50,000 to the Committee for an Optimistic Florida to spend on attack ads against the candidate’s opposition.

I know how this works because I am the tip of the spear in this equation. I’m one of those dark agents who designs the direct mail and TV ads to attack the aforementioned candidate’s opposition. So, for my sake, please, please lift the limit on contributions to political candidates. Legislation that does so should be titled the “Political Consultants Jobs Act of 2013.”

 As for whether lifting the contribution limit will fix the system, that’s unclear.

What’s very clear is the corner legislators are painting themselves during the debate over this issue.

What they’re saying during this debate is that, yes, CCEs are bad, but we’re addicted to them — to the unlimited money they can raise and to the ease of accepting contributions in big chunks rather than $500 at a time — so we need to be able to accept six figure checks into our own accounts to break us of our addition.

What legislators are also saying is, yes, real-time reporting of campaign contributions is a good and possible requirement. The long-standing impediment to real-time reporting has been the burden it supposedly places on candidates, but now they’re willing to accept that burden in return for no contribution limits.

How about legislators just go cold turkey and do away with the CCEs and institute real-time reporting and then see what kind of integrity is found in Florida?

Krassner and his new allies in the Legislature will argue that “money will always find innovative ways into the political environment and we have found no way to effectively limit it.”

That may be true, but one does not invite the fox into the henhouse just because he can’t be kept out. 

If only Bunny Colvin was fact, not fiction, and a member of the Florida Legislature, perhaps he would have a solution.

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.