Could Florida, Of All Places, Be A Leader In Campaign Finance Reform?

From Tallahassee to Miami, local governments are considering how candidates are funded.

August 8, 2016
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The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

Florida is the butt of plenty of election jokes. This is well-earned after the 2000 debacle that sent the presidential election between Al Gore and George W. Bush to the Supreme Court. And 2012 was another poor showing for the Sunshine State as voters in Miami and elsewhere waited up to seven hours to cast a ballot.  

But there are some progressive stirrings in Florida elections, a decidedly purple state. And they are happening at the local level.

For example, the city of Tallahassee (which is the state’s capital), adopted an anti-corruption charter amendment in 2014.  The measure passed with 67% support.  The changes in Tallahassee include strong enforcement of ethics laws, lower contribution limits for city elections and a type of public financing. Specifically, Tallahassee donors can receive rebates from the city of up to $25 if they give that amount or more to candidates.

Last month, St. Petersburg, which is right around the corner from where I teach at Stetson Law, broke new ground by moving forward on a bill in its city council that bans Super PACs in local races and restricts foreign money in local elections. "This is a serious issue in our country and it has a corrosive effect on our elections and in our democratic process," said Darden Rice, vice chair of the City Council. The St. Petersburg legislation could set the ground for challenging a key case called SpeechNow from the D.C. Circuit in 2010.  SpeechNow is the decision that created Super PACs in federal elections. Another part of the St. Petersburg measure bars foreign-controlled corporations from spending in local elections. The measure will be voted on by the City Council this fall.

In Miami-Dade a campaign finance reform effort recently filled two U-Haul trucks with 125,000 signatures to put on the November ballot measures that lower contribution limits in local elections and provides public financing akin to New York City’s well-respected public financing system.

As reported by the Miami Herald:

Under the proposal sponsored by political committee An Accountable Miami-Dade, campaign contributions to candidates for county commission, mayor and school board would be capped at $250 a person or corporation, down from $1,000. Major county vendors and their lobbyists and principals would be barred from contributing to candidates. And a system that affords candidates matching public contributions for donations of up to $100 by county residents would potentially enable candidates to multiply those donations six-fold.

Speaking of the signature gathering effort in Miami-Dade, New Florida Majority Executive Director Gihan Perera said, “[t]oday we’re one step closer toward making Miami-Dade more inclusive, removing barriers to civic participation, and getting big money out of politics. This is about democracy and justice.”  The County must verify the signatures and determine whether there are enough to place the issue on the ballot. The County also has the choice to enact the proposed changes on its own.

Republicans currently dominate the state legislature and they are not receptive to campaign finance reform. But legislators are subject to eight-year term limits. This means new members of the legislature are inevitable. So it is possible that in a couple of years new lawmakers who got their start in Tallahassee, St. Petersburg and Miami Dade, will take the lessons they learned at the local level and apply them to the nation’s third most populous state.

(Photo: Flickr)