By Ashley Lopez
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
The Florida Legislature’s incoming leaders want to change some of the state’s campaign finance laws, including a $500 limit on campaign contributions to political candidates.
The limit, which has been in place since 1991, hasn’t reduced the influence of big money in elections. Instead, it’s spurred large donations to political action groups.
According to a study last year by the National Institute on Money in State Politics:
A large donor can only give a candidate $500 per election, yet they are free to spend unlimited sums on electioneering communications, which are advertisements that seek to influence an election but fall short of explicitly endorsing or opposing a particular candidate or ballot measure. Candidates, particularly gubernatorial candidates, used ECOs to augment their fundraising operations and avoid the limits imposed by Florida’s public financing system.
Compounding the problem is that Florida’s disclosure of independent spending makes it difficult for the public to understand of who is funding or benefiting from the spending. Nearly 300 independent spending committees have been created since 2005, with innocuous names like “Let’s Get To Work,” “Florida’s Working Families,” and “Floridians for Truth and Integrity in Government,” with little or no identifying information. Yet many of these committees are registered to a small group of people. Of the $96.8 million of total independent spending during the study period, $38.8 million, 40 percent of the overall total, was routed through ECOs controlled by just four individuals.
In recent years, Florida’s politicians focused efforts on raising campaign cash through political action groups. For example, state Rep. Chris Dorworth — who was in line to become the next speaker of the Florida House until he was ousted in November’s election — raised about $1 million for his own group.
However, current Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz want to curb the use of such political action groups.
Gaetz and Weatherford want to raise the $500 contribution cap and ban legislator-controlled funds, called CCEs or committees of continuous existence, which collectively raised $22 million in the last cycle, according to contributionlink.com.
“I think $500 is archaic,” Weatherford says. “We all know people are spending a lot of money on campaigns. Unfortunately, none of it’s going to the actual campaigns.”
Before [Governor Lawton Chiles], the maximum contribution to a legislative candidate was $1,000, and $3,000 to statewide candidates.
Weatherford says the changes he seeks would be more transparent than what exists today in Florida.
Gaetz’s own political group raised about $4 million in the election cycle that just ended. Weatherford’s raised about $2 million.