Hundreds of new political spending committees have emerged across Florida sparked by the Legislature’s latest campaign finance overhaul — a move hailed by Republican leaders but drawing little more than shrugs from ethics advocates.
The new fund-raising vehicles replace committees of continuous existence, which officially closed forever Monday. CCEs were criticized for years as being little more than slush funds that allowed state lawmakers to collect and spend unlimited amounts of campaign cash.
But, the reform effort may be hard to spot.
Most of the freshly hatched political committees bear the same, shadowy, feel-good names as the CCEs they’re replacing. And they can take in and spend the same high volumes of special interest cash that previously flowed to lawmakers.
While 670 CCEs officially went dark, 457 political committees sprang to life, according to the Florida Division of Elections.
Still, legislative leaders cast the change as reform because political committees must now provide more frequent public reporting of their fund-raising and spending. Another new provision seeks to bar lawmakers from living off the cash they collect.
“Will the new law change life as we know it? Not really,” said Mark Herron, an elections and ethics law attorney who works closely with Democratic candidates.
With an election season fast approaching, banning CCEs was a top priority last spring for House Speaker Will Weatherford, R-Wesley Chapel, and Senate President Don Gaetz, R-Niceville, with the Senate boss condemning the practice by some lawmakers of enjoying “filet mignon lifestyles” on contributors’ money.
Dan Krassner of the watchdog group Integrity Florida said the changes should make the state’s campaign finance system “more transparent and accessible.”
“Unfortunately, there are still some bad actors who are going to make it harder for the public to follow the money,” Krassner said.
CCEs were around in Florida for 40 years, used mostly by trade associations, professional groups and such membership organizations as teachers, police and firefighters.
But only in the past decade have lawmakers found a way to use them to collect checks topping tens of thousands of dollars or more – far in excess of the state’s $500 limit on individual or corporate donations.
The Legislature’s reform effort also is likely to increase money flowing into campaigns.
While banning CCEs, lawmakers increased the individual limit on donations to legislative and local candidates from $500 to $1,000, and to statewide candidates from $500 to $3,000.
That change, which takes effect Nov. 1, is the first increase in Florida contribution limits in more than 20 years. But it was also enough to make the Florida League of Women Voters dismiss the reform effort.
“We do not see this as a step forward,” said Deirdre Macnab, League president.
For their part, CCEs were largely money pumps.
They collected contributions and distributed them to other committees. But if the money was going to be used for TV ads or mailers, it had to flow to yet another outlet – typically, electioneering communications organizations.
Such cash-shifting created what critics called a “Russian-doll syndrome,” which gave average voters little chance of understanding the real source of money, said those who track political spending.
The new political committees will be able to raise and spend money directly on campaign-related activity. And supporters say that should be able to help voters follow the money.
Still, like their now-banned predecessors, politial committees bear opaque names.
Sen. Joe Abruzzo, D-Wellington, last month closed his CCE, Citizens for Integrity in Government, that helped him raise and spend $225,000 over the last two-year election cycle, in addition to what he raised through his own candidate account.
Abruzzo and another Democrat, Rep. Karen Castor Dentel of Orlando, have reopened the CCE as a political committee bearing the same name. Others CCEs opened and closed carry such names as Florida Heritage, Florida Conservative Alliance and Veterans for Conservative Principles.
Even with the change, the Russian-doll action apparently will continue.
When Veterans for Conservative Principles closed, the CCE chaired by Rep. Frank Artiles, R-Miami, sent its last $66,000 to another electioneering organization called the Committee to Protect Florida’s Seniors, which then gave the money to Manatee Against Taxation, a political committee.
David Ramba, the Veterans’ committee’s treasurer, lobbyist and campaign consultant, acknowledged he steered the cash toward an issue he was involved in.
“Sometimes you don’t always want to make it apparent where the money is from,” Ramba said.
Of the new law, he added, “It’s more transparent. But campaign spending is more wide-open than it’s ever been.”
New campaign finance law
These parts go into effect Nov. 1:
- Increases campaign finance reporting to monthly, from quarterly reports.
- Boosts individual contribution limits from $500 to $3,000 for statewide and Supreme Court candidates; t to $1,000 for legislative, county and city candidates.
- Allows candidates for state office to keep $20,000 in surplus funds for next election; limits them from giving more than $25,000 in leftover cash to political party.