Editorial Roundup: Florida

South Florida Sun Sentinel. July 28, 2022.

Editorial: Public campaign financing: A good idea corrupted by big money

Gov. Ron DeSantis has nearly $130 million in the bank from private contributors and the Republican Party to help him run for re-election this fall and presumably advance his undeclared but undisguised campaign for the White House in 2024.

He has also tapped Florida taxpayers for another $3.3 million in campaign money — with more to come. What makes that possible is the story of another great reform, corrupted by politicians in both parties.

Back when idealism was not yet considered naïve in Tallahassee, the Legislature became alarmed at the ever-increasing costs of running for statewide office and at the moral hazards that come with leaning on contributors for more and more money. Binding limits were out of the question because of a tragic 1976 U.S. Supreme Court decision that conflated freedom of speech with freedom to spend money.

The solution: a 1986 law providing matching taxpayer funds for candidates for governor and Cabinet who would commit to abiding by preset spending limits. The program matches contributions of up to $250 from Florida residents only. Participating candidates whose opponents opt out are allowed to spend as much as their rivals do — if they can raise it.

The program helped to elect and re-elect the last Democratic governor, Lawton Chiles, who limited his contributions to $100 per person. It was also decisive for Bob Milligan, Florida’s first (and only) Republican state comptroller and banking commissioner, who did not take contributions from the banking industry in his successful 1994 campaign in which he unseated long-time Democrat Gerald Lewis.

It made so much sense that the voters cemented public financing into the Florida Constitution in 1998 and decisively rejected the Legislature’s attempt to repeal it in 2010.

The greedy and the needy

But it no longer keeps big money out of politics, and it subsidizes the greedy as well as the needy.

The Legislature subverted the good intentions in two ways.

First, it allowed the spending limits to qualify for public financing to grow too large. Pegged at $2 per voter, the limit for the governor’s race this year is $30.2 million. DeSantis could spend a lot more than that without disqualifying himself from the public subsidy.

That’s because of the second way the law was subverted: State legislators allow themselves and other politicians to control separate political committees in addition to their official campaign accounts. Money raised and spent by those committees doesn’t count against the limits in the public financing program. It’s a loophole you can drive a Brinks truck through. A well-heeled candidate like DeSantis can draw matching money while mocking the supposedly noble public purpose it represents.

A gubernatorial candidate’s campaign account can accept no more than $3,000 from a donor. Separate political committees are entirely unbound — the sky’s the limit. On July 7, before the DeSantis campaign drew its first matching funds from the treasury, Friends of Ron DeSantis received $10 million — its largest single donation — from Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas hotel and aerospace entrepreneur.

In three separate installments, Friends of Ron DeSantis has taken $10.5 million from Ken Griffin, a billionaire hedge fund executive, who recently said he’s moving from Illinois to Florida. Since DeSantis established his committee in 2016, it has hauled in nearly $172 million and spent some $50 million.

Another blow to the matching funds program came in 2010 from the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, when it barred Florida from supplementing the campaigns of participating candidates whose opponents opt of the program and abide by its limits.

The rich got richer

That ruling helped Rick Scott, who was essentially self-funding his campaign, defeat Attorney General Bill McCollum for the Republican nomination for governor. McCollum accepted matching funds. Scott didn’t. The limit at that time was $24.9 million. Scott ultimately spent more than $75 million of his own money.

“At bottom,” said the appeals court opinion, written by its arch-conservative Chief Judge William Pryor, “the Florida public campaign financing system appears primarily to advantage candidates with little money or who exercise restraint in fundraising. That is, the system levels the electoral playing field, and that purpose is constitutionally problematic. …Even if we were certain that the public financing system of Florida furthers an anticorruption interest, we agree that Scott has proved a likelihood that the excess spending subsidy is not the least restrictive means of encouraging that participation.”

The Democrats who want DeSantis’s job, U.S. Rep. Charlie Crist and Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried, also maintain separate political committees that accept contributions larger than $3,000, but they have raised far less money, so their subsidies are less than the governor’s. Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis and Attorney General Ashley Moody are also in the matching funds program. Senate President Wilton Simpson, a Republican and the leading candidate for agriculture commissioner, is not.

The matching funds program has been a target of Republican politicians who don’t take the money and call it “welfare for politicians.” In 1997, then-Secretary of State Sandra Mortham sued unsuccessfully to abolish it. Crist, a state senator at the time, proposed repealing the program, but it failed on a tie vote. Chiles successfully lobbied the Constitution Revision Commission for an amendment guaranteeing it permanently, which voters approved in 1998.

DeSantis’s record-breaking fund-raising totals may inspire new proposals to repeal the program, but that would be altogether wrong.

Instead, the Legislature should forbid candidates who take matching funds from controlling separate soft money machines like Friends of Ron DeSantis. Or it could cap donations to those committees to the same amounts — $3,000 for statewide officials and $1,000 for legislators — as in the campaign finance law, and make them count against the limits candidates must accept to qualify for matching funds.

Av even better idea is to eliminate those slush funds altogether.

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Miami Herald. July 29, 2022.

Editorial: In FPL’s playbook, dirty political tricks and propaganda seem to be business as usual

Florida’s utility giant seems to get what it wants at all costs — whether it be by backing dirty political tricks to sway elections, using its power to bully dissenters or buying favorable news coverage.

Florida Power & Light has tried to smear reporters and media outlets that publish stories it doesn’t like. One of its consultants went so far as compiling a 72-page dossier of personal information on a newspaper columnist who wrote critically about the potential sale of a Jacksonville-area utility to FPL’s parent company. The report was emailed to a top FPL executive, but the company claims it had nothing to do with the creepy report, which included photos taken secretly of the journalist walking his dog, the Florida Times-Union reported in June.

Now it looks FPL is trying to build its own propaganda machine disguised as legitimate news.

As the Herald’s Sarah Blaskey reported this week, the utility company used a group of intermediaries to secretly bankroll and control content of a news website. The Capitolist, run by a former Gov. Rick Scott spokesman, went after FPL’s critics, suggesting some of them were part of “dark money” conspiracies. Articles were screened by communications experts consulting for FPL and included a hit piece a top company executive ordered against 2018 Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Gillum.

The Herald story was based on a massive leak of documents. FPL said it doesn’t have “ownership interest” or control over the Capitolist and suggested some of the documents were doctored, but refused to say which ones, the Herald reported.

In the era of online misinformation, “alternative facts” and distrust in the media, FPL’s actions go beyond a company defending its bottom line. This scheme makes a mockery of freedom of the press and democracy. And it could’ve gone even farther.

Emails show that, in 2020, Capitolist editor and founder Brian Burgess suggested to an FPL consultant secretly financing the purchase of the largest newspaper chain in Florida run by the USA TODAY Network. The plan concocted by Burgess — who received a $12,000 monthly paycheck through FPL-backed shell companies — was to “inject content into all those publications, and nobody has to know who’s actually pulling the strings,” the Herald reported.

Burgess’ pitch sounds like pie in the sky, but, had it come to fruition, communities from Palm Beach County to Jacksonville and from Naples to the Panhandle would have lost their local news source. In their place would have been pay-to-play propaganda outlets for the powerful.

FPL’s involvement with the Capitolist is yet another tentacle FPL has used to exert political influence at the expense of democracy in Florida.

The company was linked to a dark-money scheme to siphon votes away from Democratic state Senate candidates by promoting so-called “ghost candidates” in three key 2020 races, including one in Miami-Dade County. This political dirty trick helped Republicans maintain their majority in the Senate and was orchestrated by political consultants working for FPL. Parent company NextEra Energy conducted an internal investigation and found “no evidence... of illegality or wrongdoing” by FPL, the Herald reported in January.

The utility has a vested interest in having allies in the Legislature. NextEra has made it clear it wants to dominate the renewable-energy market. The rapid expansion of private rooftop solar panels in the state in recent years is a threat to that goal. FPL lobbyists helped write a bill that would have slowed down that expansion. After Herald Tallahassee Bureau Chief Mary Ellen Klas wrote a story about the company’s behind-the-scenes work on the legislation, she became the target of a smear campaign on FPL’s website. The company also targeted the Herald for not publishing the entirety of an opinion piece written in response to Klas’ reporting. It ran after the Herald edited out unfounded attacks against Klas.

There’s nothing new about economic interests using money and connections to influence policy and public opinion. But if there’s a point where run-of-the-mill politicking goes too far and endangers our democratic institutions, FPL has gotten too darn close to it.

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