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Sunday, Sep 24, 2017
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Tampa Tribune editorial: Remove campaign caps

Florida law caps campaign contributions to candidates at $500, but the limit is meaningless. Donors throw unlimited funds at favored politicians through various committees that are unaffected by the cap and protected by court rulings. "You don't see it," Florida House Speaker Will Weatherford, a Pasco Republican, says of the contributions, "and you can't trace it." Weatherford rightly favors reform and likes a smart proposal from Integrity Florida, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization.
It proposes to get rid of contribution caps, but mandate transparency on all donations. The idea of unlimited contributions understandably unsettles many citizens, but the current situation is a farce. The $500 limit for a primary and another $500 for the general election were adopted in 1991 to keep money from unduly influencing elections. But it is easily eluded, and voters usually can't see who is bankrolling candidates. As Integrity Florida's Dan Krassner and Ben Wilcox wrote in a report to the House: "Florida has a system that already allows unlimited contributions but encourages them to go through secretive committees." The courts have determined that financial contributions represent political speech, so tougher restrictions are not likely. Probably the best way to achieve reform, as Integrity Florida suggests, is make the system more transparent. Under the organization's proposal, the contribution limits for candidates would be eliminated but would have to be reported within 24 hours. Similarly, political parties would have to report contributions within 24 hours. There would be a 24-hour reporting deadline for all expenditures by a candidate or party as well. Integrity Florida also proposes eliminating "Committees of Continuous Existence," which raise money that are transferred to candidates and other committees. These committees serve, as the group says, as a "money pump." The transfers are difficult to track. All this will not eliminate the possibility of abuse, much less minimize the influence of wealthy donors. But it would give citizens a far better view of who's involved in a candidate's campaign. The cap, as Weatherford says, is "pushing money to outside groups." Consider: In the 2011-12 elections, Integrity Florida reports $230 million out of the $306 million raised in campaign funds went to parties and political committees with loose disclosure rules. Weatherford brings up another advantage of killing the cap. "It would put the candidate back in control of the campaign, not outsiders," he says. "This process, with the money going to these groups, has emasculated candidates." There are risks. A wealthy donor could spend millions of dollars to advance an agenda. But money does not necessarily guarantee success — as casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, who invested $53 million to defeat President Obama, discovered last year. State lawmakers could always revisit the matter if the proposed reforms proved ineffective. But the current system doesn't work. Krassner and Wilcox put it well in their report, "The public is right to be concerned about the corrupting influence of money in politics buying too much influence on public policy. Our view is that corruption does not like sunlight, and disclosure is the key to accountability." Lawmakers should trust voters and try things without the campaign contribution cap.
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