Ever heard these Florida myths? Somewhere in the state there's a fountain that restores youth to anyone who drinks from it. And political candidates can't accept more than $500 from each campaign contributor.
State law does cap direct contributions to candidates at $500. But the law also lets candidates create separate committees to rake in unlimited donations to cover campaign expenses: "committees of continuous existence," or CCEs, and advertising costs -- electioneering campaign organizations, or ECOs.
Corporations, unions and wealthy fat cats looking to maintain or expand their influence in Tallahassee routinely take advantage of this loophole to shower thousands of dollars on their favorite candidates.
Politicians can tap their CCEs to help fund their own campaigns or ECOs, or to forge political alliances by cutting checks to other lawmakers' committees. Political parties and special interests also can form CCEs and ECOs. This year more than 600 CCEs hauled in at least $77 million.
Often that money passed through multiple committees, making it almost impossible for the public to figure out where the laundered funds originated. Typical committee names like the Florida Enterprise Foundation (tied to Lake Mary Republican Chris Dorworth) or Common Sense in Florida (linked with Orlando Democrat Geraldine Thompson) give the public as few clues as possible.
This cash-drenched yet murky campaign finance system doesn't just amplify the power of special interests; it also invites abuse by candidates. Some live like kings by using their CCEs to pay for wining and dining, first-class travel and other extravagant spending on the campaign trail. Others are enticed to savage their opponents in ads when they can outsource the dirty work to an ECO, and then claim to be shocked, simply shocked at the mudslinging.
In a promising sign, the Legislature's new Republican leaders, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford, expressed interest in banning CCEs. Both cited the abuses the committees allow.
Weatherford, of all lawmakers, understands. His CCE gave $110,000 to an ECO that was behind perhaps the most reprehensible political attack ad of the year: a mailer that compared Democratic House candidate Karen Castor Dentel to Penn State sexual predator Jerry Sandusky. Weatherford condemned the ad.
In return for banning CCEs, Gaetz and Weatherford want to raise or repeal the $500 limit on direct contributions to candidates.
Raising the 30-year-old limit makes more sense than repealing it. Otherwise, lawmakers would just close one door to unlimited fundraising while opening another.
Court rulings could prevent a ban on ECOs. But that shouldn't stop lawmakers from seeking ways to reduce the role of those committees through contribution limits and better disclosure.
Florida badly needs a more open and honest system for funding elections. It's time for legislators to deliver.