Editorial: Don't pull the plug on public financing in Florida
• Aug 27, 2017
Editorial Board, Orlando Sentinel
Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran, a likely candidate for governor, flamboyantly took aim this past week at the state’s public campaign finance system. It was an odd target — a system that has cost state taxpayers a grand total of $10.4 million since 2010. That’s a rounding error on the hundreds of billions of dollars in state spending over the same period.
Even so, Corcoran urged the Constitution Revision Commission, a panel that meets once every 20 years, to give voters a chance on next year’s ballot to abolish the system. "This is a gross waste of taxpayer money and is nothing more than welfare for politicians,” the speaker wrote in a letter addressed to commission members. This is boilerplate language from opponents of public financing. Former Gov. Jeb Bush is among critics who have used the “welfare for politicians” line. The phrase was already hackneyed when it came out of his mouth years ago.
Downsizing big money
Florida’s system offers candidates for governor or Cabinet posts matching public funds for individual contributions from state residents up to $250, provided those candidates also agree to cap their campaign spending. It was conceived as a way to level the playing field among contenders for office, lessen their dependence on deep-pocketed contributors and put a limit on their spending. These were worthy goals when the system was adopted by state voters nearly 20 years ago. They have even more merit today in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that opened the floodgates on political spending by corporations, labor unions and wealthy individuals.
There have been examples of candidates in Florida taking advantage of the system who didn’t need the money. In 2014, Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam accepted $459,000 in taxpayer dollars on his way to an easy re-election over a largely unknown Democratic challenger. This is a good argument for reviewing and reforming the system, not repealing it and eliminating an alternative to the big-money special interests that dominate Florida campaigns. All that special-interest money contributes to public policies, such as tax giveaways for some industries, whose cost for taxpayers dwarfs the tab for public financing. Just one tax break for the insurance industry, for example, is worth $300 million a year.
Florida’s public campaign finance system was first proposed to voters as part of a constitutional amendment in 1998; the amendment passed 64-36. In 2010, legislators put another amendment on the ballot that would have abolished the system. Voters rejected that amendment.
Overlooking the real issues
So why would the speaker be pushing for another amendment to scrap the system, just eight years later? To box in his rivals for governor. A 2018 ballot proposal wouldn’t change the rules for the 2018 campaign, but it would draw more attention to the system and heighten the pressure on candidates to steer clear of it to avoid political attacks from Corcoran and other critics.
Putnam, now running for governor, hasn’t said whether he’ll take any public dollars for his campaign. Nor has another GOP candidate for governor, state Sen. Jack Latvala of Clearwater. Candidates don’t have to decide whether to use public financing until the qualifying deadline to run in June. But Latvala had the best comeback for Corcoran’s proposal. “No citizen ever mentioned public financing as [an] issue,” Latvala tweeted. “Many ARE concerned about opioids, schools falling apart, water quality.” If every candidate in 2018 were to join the speaker in shunning any public financing for their campaigns, the money saved wouldn’t begin to solve the big problems cited by the senator.
It’s easy for Corcoran to swear off public financing. Even though he’s not an official candidate for governor at this point, his political action committee, known as Watchdog PAC, has collected $2.8 million since its creation in May. Already there are plenty of special interests represented on his list of contributors. South Florida auto mogul and Republican political patron Norman Braman stroked a check for $100,000. So did the Fountainbleau Resort in Miami Beach. Florida Blue, the state’s largest health insurer, kicked in $50,000. So did Duke Energy, one of the state’s largest utilities, and so did Wal-Mart. Lawyers chipped in four- or five-figure contributions.
Other candidates in the future might not enjoy the same support from wealthy special interests, or might not even welcome it. They, and voters, deserve to keep an alternative.
You can find the full article by the Orlando Sentinel Editorial Board here.