How to fix money in Florida politics

Article Courtesy of The St. Petersburg Times

By Howard Troxler

Published June 6 , 2011

There's an old joke that members of the Florida Legislature should be labeled like NASCAR drivers to show who is paying for them.

And you know what? In the end, I think something like that is the right idea.

We probably can't make them wear labels directly on their clothes. But maybe we can come close.

The modern problem in Florida is that traditional "campaign contributions," given directly to a candidate under strict limits, are less and less important.

More and more important are the "committees" or similar outfits that take unlimited money from interest groups seeking to buy influence.

These committees can be:

The political parties, which have been reinvented as giant money-laundering schemes.

The universe of PACs and "committees of continuous existence" formed to raise large amounts of money and funnel it into campaigns.

A relatively new breed of committees operated by politicians themselves even sitting members of the Legislature that free them from the traditional limits.

Florida is the Wild West of money in politics, and it is getting worse. Remember that this year, the Legislature even re-legalized "leadership funds," or campaign accounts operated directly by the leaders of the House and Senate.

Legal bribery.

With all this money, these committees buy elections at the local level. The quaint idea of American legislative democracy at the district level is almost a fiction. It is not a question of who St. Petersburg wants in the Legislature, or St. Augustine, or Gainesville or Palatka. It is an orchestrated statewide machine.

These committees churn the money among themselves, launder it, pour it into local elections and hide the origin. This is the key point. The entire purpose of campaign finance laws to tell the public who is paying for the campaign is defeated.

When we get a campaign brochure in our mailbox that says, "Paid for by the Committee for Florida's Future and Cute Little Puppies," that does not tell us that it is actually being run by a powerful legislator, taking payoffs from Corporations X and Y so they can get favorable laws.

Can we do this better?

Yes. But first, here is what we can't do:

We can't tell Americans they cannot give money to politicians.

We can't limit the amount of money a candidate spends to get elected.

These are decided questions. The courts have ruled that money is free speech, even do-badder money. Them's the rules. We would have to change the Constitution itself.

However, I think we are perfectly entitled to do two other things:

(1) Make it illegal for sitting members of the Florida Legislature to operate these committees, or to take any money for that matter, other than for their own re-election account.

(2) Require every campaign ad to report its backers. My model for this is the "nutritional analysis" we see on everything we buy at the grocery store these days.

On the first point, I think we can constitutionally ban sitting legislators from taking these payoffs. The act of writing the law is so important, and the potential for corruption so great, that we are entitled to ban direct payoffs to the law writers. In legal terms, there is a "compelling interest" that justifies it.

As for the second point, I think that every committee or campaign ad ought to have to list its major contributors in a box, akin to the nutritional label. It is technically possible, it is not burdensome, and it is entirely justified by the compelling public interest in knowing whose money is paying for the campaign.

At the very least, I would ban members of the Legislature from taking unlimited payoffs. No doubt this concept will seem bizarre and alien to the Capitol culture. But I appeal to the common sense of the rest of the world.