October 30, 2012 at 2:24 pm
Want to know who’s scratching your candidate’s back, and whose back he or she is scratching in return?
Good luck with that.
Following the money trail in Florida is like taking a trip through a Rube Goldberg machine.
As Sunday’s report by Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers showed, Florida’s loose campaign finance laws allow special interests to pump unlimited amounts of money into state and local races.
The committees that funnel the money don’t have to track the candidates they are supporting or attacking — and that is awfully convenient for the donors throwing around wads of cash.
If voters can’t draw a straight line between donor and candidate, then they can’t be sure who is peddling influence.
The committees also let politicians and donors wash their hands of dirty campaign tactics while still benefiting from them.
That, apparently, is how state lawmakers like it. They sure haven’t made much effort to change the practice (which, at the state level, predates the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling).
Let’s use state Sen. Joe Negron, a Republican from Stuart, as a case study.
As staff writer Jonathan Mattise reported Sunday, Negron runs or helps run four “committees of continuous existence,” which can accept unlimited donations, then send them to other groups to buy political ads.
Negron’s four committees have raised a combined $8.5 million. He runs three of them with other state lawmakers and one of them (Florida Conservative Action Committee) himself, records show.
Among the more interesting donations on the four committees’ books: $50,000 from Geo Group Inc., which supports prison privatization; $40,000 from the casino company Genting New York, which has pushed to bring casino gambling to South Florida; and about $245,000 from Big Sugar (either U.S. Sugar Corp. or Florida Crystals).
The Big Sugar contributions are particularly notable.
Negron has recently become more vocal about stopping the dumping of polluted Lake Okeechobee water into the St. Lucie River — an issue in which Big Sugar is deeply intertwined. Sugar growers own the land south of Lake O that river advocates believe is needed to restore the natural flow of water.
If committees that Negron is affiliated with are getting six-figure donations from Big Sugar, how do we know he’s acting in the interests of the St. Lucie River, not the sugar companies?
That’s the problem with Florida’s campaign finance laws. They cast shadows over everyone who embraces them.
I’m not picking on Negron. He just happens to be the only state lawmaker from Martin County who is affiliated with such committees.
He’s also vying to become state Senate president in 2016, and shuffling money to his allies will boost his chances of landing the chamber’s top post. (Negron could not be reached for comment on Monday.)
None of the politicians interviewed for Sunday’s stories said they were fond of Florida’s campaign finance arrangements. Yet a majority of state lawmakers have failed to embrace meaningful reform.
They should — starting with requiring more honest disclosure about where the special-interest money ends up.
I looked up the contributions and expenditures for all four of Negron’s committees of continuous existence (Florida Conservative Majority, Protect Our Liberty, Florida Conservative Action Committee and Alliance for a Strong Economy). Much of their money is sent to other political committees, the Republican Party of Florida or marketing firms — but we don’t know the end result unless we happen to receive one of the political ads in the mail.
Democracy requires transparency, and Florida’s disclosure rules fall short.
The nonprofit National Institute on Money in State Politics recommends three practices for campaign finance disclosure: clear statutes; comprehensive data collection and effective presentation of the data.
Of course, special interests aren’t asking for those things.
That means the chances are slim that lawmakers will act on them.
Eve Samples is a columnist for Scripps Treasure Coast Newspapers. This column reflects her opinion. Contact her at 772-221-4217 or email@example.com.