TALLAHASSEE — Created to “level the playing field” and open the elections process to less-affluent candidates, Florida’s system of public campaign financing would likely go away if voters on Nov. 2 pass Amendment 1.
Put on the ballot by the Republican-controlled Legislature last year, Amendment 1 would repeal a requirement put in the constitution in 1998 that requires the state to provide a system of public matching funds to candidates for public office.
The system has come under increasing fire from critics across the country, not the least of which is Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Scott, who successfully upheld his right to spend as much as he can without taxpayers having to help his opponent benefit from the Naples millionaire’s ability to spend lavishly on his own campaign.
If you recall, Scott successfully challenged a portion of Florida’s law that required taxpayers give $1 for every $1 he raised over a state-imposed cap for the 2010 election cycle of just under $25 million. Scott, who was running against fellow Republican Bill McCollum for the GOP nomination, argued that the state’s public funding system deprived him of his First Amendment rights by effectively restricting the amount of money he could spend. A federal judge agreed.
Florida has operated a system of public campaign financing since 1986 and has so far pumped in more than $27 million in taxpayer money into political campaigns. Backers of Amendment 1 say that taxpayers should not be on the hook to pay for political campaigns.
With the economy still in the tank, such public support is even more undesirable as other critical needs in education, social services and other critical state functions go unmet, opponents of public financing contend.
Critics of Amendment 1, a coalition of voters’ advocacy groups including the League of Women Voters, the NAACP and Common Cause, say public financing plays a critical role in expanding the pool of potential political candidates who would otherwise be precluded from running.
Instead of jettisoning the entire system, public financing advocates urge lawmakers to make changes to address loopholes in the system they say still serves a laudable public purpose.
Though public financing has been around since the 1980s, voters in 1998 approved a constitutional requirement to publicly fund campaigns as part of a larger group of election law changes proposed by the most recent Constitutional Revision Commission. After 64 percent of voters approved the measure, lawmakers hammered out the details and put those in state law.
Created in part to stem the tide of expensive elections, the results have been mixed. Campaign financing systems have been relatively unsuccessful in drawing minor parties into races. Further, they have not particularly curbed spending as evidenced most recently by Scott’s largely self-funded quest to become Florida’s next governor. Before the party stepped in to help, Scott and his wife had spent more than $50 million of their own money.
If 60 percent of voters agree Nov. 2, Republican leaders in the House and Senate will have the opportunity to repeal the mechanics of the public campaign system. Their ability to do so will be enhanced should Scott defeat his Democratic challenger Alex Sink.
E-mail Michael Peltier at email@example.com.