Earlier this year, Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran was one of only two state-level politicians who attended the infamous Koch brothers-hosted summit in Colorado. Corcoran promptly flew home and announced a plan to kill Florida's public-election-financing laws, which help elect candidates who don't want donations from the corporations, utility companies, real-estate magnates, and billionaires who effectively control state politics.
Naturally, the Kochs' lobbying arm is now ecstatic about the plan and cheering Corcoran on.
"We commend Speaker Corcoran for calling to end political welfare for political candidates," Americans for Prosperity Florida, the local chapter of the Kochs' huge lobbying operation, announced last week. "Individuals seeking to be public servants should not burden the public to finance their political ambitions."
There's plenty of evidence that laws such as Florida's public campaign financing are good for democracy. Scores of studies, including this comprehensive one from the Brennan Center for Justice, show taxpayer-funded elections, as opposed to privately funded ones like we largely have now, are more egalitarian, engage voters better, and produce more competitive candidates who respond faster to the issues of everyday constituents. (Australia, Germany, France, and Israel publicly fund almost the entirety of their elections.) The key is regulating elections correctly, which Florida doesn't do thanks in part to poorly written laws and a few factors beyond the state's control.
But instead of moving closer to a more egalitarian system of campaign funding, Corcoran has instead dismissed the law as "welfare for politicians" and is now asking the state's Constitutional Revision Commission to propose a law abolishing the process.
"This is a gross waste of taxpayer money and is nothing more than welfare for politicians," Corcoran announced last week. "All it does is protect the insider political class. You really have to be clueless or just plain selfish to accept money from our state coffers that could go to our schoolchildren, first responders, or be put back in the pockets of our taxpayers. This proposal is simply about doing the right thing."
Corcoran is openly debating a run for governor, and the measure — among its other effects — would probably prevent his competition from raising more money than he would collect.
Yes, Florida's public-election-financing laws are flawed. The program is small and voluntary thanks to the landmark Buckley v. Valeo Supreme Court decision, in which the court ruled it's illegal to restrict spending by political campaigns.
But without a public-financing option, the people set to benefit are entrenched politicians such as Corcoran and billionaire oligarchs such as Charles and David Koch, who stuff state politicians with cash like scarecrows in exchange for writing laws the brothers like. There's a reason the Kochs are so happy about Corcoran's proposal. At the end of July, Americans for Prosperity gave 50 Florida lawmakers, including Corcoran, A+ grades for voting in line with Koch interests 100 percent of the time.
In order to comply with Buckley, Florida candidates must enter the program voluntarily: They agree to cap their total campaign-spending limit, and, in return, the state uses taxpayer funds to match the money the candidates raise privately. The law applies only to candidates running for statewide office, which includes the governor and attorney general.
The law, called the Florida Election Campaign Financing Act, was pitched in 1986 as a stopgap to help underdog political candidates topple established, and possibly corrupt and/or out-of-touch, incumbents.
"While there is no minimum financial status required for a person to run for statewide elected office, it should not surprise even a casual observer of Florida's political scene that the Governor and most of the present Cabinet members are wealthy people," the Florida State University Law Review wrote after the act was passed. "Our political system increasingly has become the domain of the rich and famous, and the high cost of campaigning is one reason why. This high cost has bred a host of distasteful and shady campaign practices has spurred
At the time, the FSU Law Review named the Campaign Financing Act "a modest proposal, providing only partial funding of statewide campaigns, at the option of the candidate, with a limit on total campaign spending."
At the time, even hard-core Republicans like Barry Goldwater admitted the nation's campaign-financing system was broken — he once even called unlimited campaign spending a "crisis of liberty." But Florida's 1986 law has proven mostly ineffectual and has not stopped moneyed interests from consolidating their hold on state politics. Over the years, caps on campaign spending under the law increased, to the point where established candidates such as Charlie Crist were able to take $2.5 million in matching funds while accepting gobs of cash from corporate donors, which was something the law was designed to prevent.
Nobody is arguing the status quo is working in Florida's campaign finance laws.
But instead of amending the law to make it more usable for candidates who want to avoid corporate handouts, hard-right reactionaries in the Florida Legislature — the sort who foam at the mouth at the basic concept of taxation or representative governance — have seemed hell-bent on repealing the rule. A measure to repeal the Campaign Financing Act was proposed once in 2010 but failed. Now Corcoran is resurrecting that fight during this year's Constitutional Revision Commission process.
The process, led by Florida Gov. Rick Scott's hard-right racist buddy Carlos Beruff, has been a nightmare so far: Beruff has been accused of skirting state open-records laws, and Scott is asking the commission to adopt a measure that would make it next-to-impossible to raise taxes.
It's laughable to suggest taxpayer-funded campaigns in general "protect the insider political class," as Corcoran claims. When those campaigns are done correctly, the exact opposite is true.
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Florida is already a test case for what happens when moneyed interests are allowed to buy off the political class and bankroll nearly every politician in the state: Legislative districts are gerrymandered into shapes that resemble writhing balls of snakes, Big Sugar receives zero punishment for polluting the Everglades, and the state continues inching closer to outlawing home solar panels in order to protect a group of four utility companies determined to warm the planet into soup.
If anything, Florida needs a far stronger public-election-financing law. Don't let Corcoran and the Kochs convince you otherwise.