Obscure political committees nudge Legislature's agenda
Little-known political committees benefit from industries trying to influence legislation.
Article Courtesy of The Miami Herald
By MARC CAPUTO AND LEE LOGAN
Published April 5, 2010
When powerful industries push their agendas in the state Capitol, they start cutting big checks to the little-known political committees of top Florida legislators who spend the money to help each other and themselves.
Total contributed to the committees since the end of the 2008 elections: $4.1 million, according to a Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times analysis of the 36 committees tied to sitting legislators.
The largest amounts come from the industries with the most business before the Legislature: health ($830,000), retail and general business ($811,550), and building and real estate ($373,348).
About 42 percent of the money flowed to four committees tied to one lawmaker, Sen. Mike Haridopolos, R-Melbourne, who will lead the Florida Senate in November. And Haridopolos is pushing for even more fundraising power: He helped pass a bill two weeks ago that could increase -- by a factor of 100 -- the power of legislative leaders to directly contribute money to a candidate's campaign.
The money trail reveals at least one reason that some big issues -- limiting lawsuits, for instance -- dominate this lawmaking session. And it shows how legislators spend the cash of others by campaigning for friends, hiring consultants and dining around the state in places ranging from Cracker Barrel in Vero Beach to Urbane, an upscale Tallahassee restaurant.
"When I go on the road, I should pay for that?'' Haridopolos responded when asked if some lawmakers are using special interest money for regular living expenses. "My role is to help people get elected.''
Not all the committees tied to Haridopolos are solely under his control. Two are run with other lawmakers. A few other committees -- Florida Mainstream Democrats and the Florida Hispanic Legislative Caucus -- also involve multiple lawmakers.
None of the lawmakers, however, has raised as much as Haridopolos, who has trouble remembering the specific purposes of some of the committees and expenditures. He points out that he follows legislative rules and state law by posting on each committee's website all expenditures or contributions within 10 days of the transaction.
``I didn't hide any of our money,'' Haridopolos said. ``Every dollar I raised was out there for everyone to see.''
But every dollar spent isn't so easy to track because lawmakers funnel money from one political committee to another.
Consider Haridopolos's Freedom First Committee. It gave $735,200 to another committee that gave money to yet another committee to support the successful Oct. 6 Senate campaign of Republican John Thrasher of St. Augustine. A third committee that also received Freedom First cash, Don't Bank on Sink, launched a now-defunct website criticizing Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink, the state's chief financial officer.
About $295,000 of Freedom First's money came in six checks from the Florida and U.S. Chambers of Commerce. Another $105,000 came from Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Florida.
The business group and the health insurance company gave the most to the lawmaker committees. They supported Thrasher because he was taking fire from their deep-pocketed opponents, the trial lawyer lobby.
"John Thrasher is family,'' said Michael Hightower, the Blue Cross lobbyist who wrote the checks to Freedom First.
Mark Wilson, president and CEO of the Florida Chamber of Commerce, said the group and its national partner have targeted Florida as a place for tort reform.
"We need a Legislature full of people who have run a business before, not just sued business,'' Wilson said, a crack at trial lawyers, as he noted that the Democrats' control in Congress makes Florida a more important state for the chamber.
"With the political climate in Washington, the emphasis is now on the states,'' Wilson said.
The Florida chamber is also a major backer of an education bill, sponsored by Thrasher, that has put the teachers union on the defensive over teacher pay and testing this year. The Florida Education Association and an affiliated Miami-Dade teacher group have given $77,500 to Floridians for Constitutional Integrity, run by Republican Sen. Alex Villalobos, R-Miami.
Villalobos' likely Republican successor, House education budget chief Anitere Flores, has received $10,000 from the chamber through her group, Floridians for Strong Leadership. The chamber contributed another $25,000 in February to Liberty Fund, controlled by future House Speaker Dean Cannon, R-Winter Park.
Cannon's committee also received the largest check -- $50,000 from the Florida Retail Federation -- on March 1, the day before the 60-day legislative session began, during which fundraising by legislators is banned. In total, the committees raised $380,950 on that one day before session.
The retail federation is the third-largest contributor to the lawmaker committees. Its top agenda: a sales-tax holiday and tort reform, specifically limiting slip-and-fall lawsuits. Those items look likely to pass this year, as do other tort-reform bills and the teacher-pay issue.
Some contributors are waging war on each other in the Capitol. The Florida Medical Association ($85,000 donated to the committees) is fighting the Florida Optometric Committee ($115,000) over eye-doctor procedures. And Florida Crystals ($32,500) is trying to stop a state buyout of most of U.S. Sugar ($70,000).
In a sign of how much Republicans control the Capitol, only three active committees are controlled by Democrats: Mainstream Democratic Alliance, Florida Mainstream Democratic Forum and Victory 2010, which is controlled by Ron Saunders, D-Key West. Since the 2008 elections, they have raised just $116,320 -- 43 percent of it from a single Blue Cross check.
Rick Kriseman, D-St. Petersburg, runs the Mainstream Democratic groups but said they might shut down because it's harder to raise money in a slow economy.
Kriseman said the decision by Republicans to give leaders more fundraising power "opened up a huge can of worms.''
Haridopolos and Cannon stand to benefit most from the bill, which awaits Gov. Charlie Crist's signature. It allows Republican and Democratic leaders to raise and spend money with special new accounts, known as leadership funds, through their respective political parties.
Right now, the lawmakers can raise unlimited sums through three types of political committees: Committees of Continuous Existence, which are regulated by the state, and 527s and 501c4s, which are named for provisions of the federal income tax code.
The 527s and 501c4s can't expressly advocate for candidates. The CCEs can only contribute $500 to a candidate.
But with leadership funds, legislative leaders will have the power to raise unlimited sums and directly contribute $50,000 -- 100 times the current limit -- to any candidate on behalf of a party. Each political party can directly contribute $50,000 now, but legislative leaders -- who have private party accounts now -- need permission to spend some of the money. No more.
This January, Haridopolos and Cannon all but acknowledged the existence of those private accounts by demanding $949,500 be transferred to their committees from the party during a time of GOP turmoil. They returned the cash within two months.
Currently, the political party money that's raised and spent by legislative leaders isn't clearly marked. That will change with leadership funds, which will more specifically disclose campaign activity.
"I could not ask for a better piece of legislation,'' Haridopolos said on the Senate floor March 24. "This is transparency that everyone is looking for.''