House of reformers? Then extend ban on legislative session fundraising to governor and Cabinet

Florida House Speaker Richard Corcoran opened the 2018 legislative session in his chamber with a signature stemwinder exhorting representatives to be a “house of reformers.” We urge the speaker to step up to his own challenge by embracing a simple but meaningful proposal from one of his members.

The proposal, from Dania Beach Democrat Evan Jenne, would bar Florida’s governor and Cabinet members from raising campaign money during legislative sessions. That prohibition already applies to legislators. Extending it to statewide officials is, as Jenne asserted, common sense.

What’s good for legislators …

Even in Florida, a state where deep-pocketed special interests largely bankroll the political campaigns, legislators understand that continuing to raise money for their re-election bids while they’re in session would paint a terrible picture. As they decide whether to support or oppose bills that might enrich or encumber special interests, legislators shouldn’t be soliciting or depositing checks from those same interests.

Of course, most state senators and representatives do all they can to raise money before and after sessions, and the biggest contributors tend to wield the most clout in the legislative process. The fundraising ban during sessions is definitely not a panacea, but it helps keep a flawed system from further deterioration. It also rules out a time-consuming distraction for legislators when they should be devoting their attention to lawmaking.

Yet Florida’s governor faces no restrictions on fundraising during sessions, though he enjoys the ultimate authority to sign or veto any bill passed by the Legislature. Even a word of support or opposition from the governor for legislation during the session might make the difference in whether it reaches his desk. The governor also can accept or reject any line item in the budget legislators pass. For special interests hoping to work their will through campaign contributions, and temporarily cut off from writing checks to legislators, these powers can’t be ignored.

The members of Florida’s Cabinet — the attorney general, chief financial officer and agriculture commissioner — can’t offer potential contributors the same direct authority over legislation as the governor. But all three normally pursue their own policy agendas during legislative sessions. And their positions also might determine whether a bill rises or falls.

Leveling the playing field

In legislative sessions from 2011 to 2017, Scott and Cabinet members together raised more than $16 million, according to Florida Politics, an online news outlet. “It’s in complete conflict with common sense and fairness that those with influence on the legislative process can raise money from special interests and pad their campaign war chests during session while bills are being vetted, voted on, and making their way toward becoming law,” Jenne told the outlet. His proposal would bar the governor and Cabinet members from seeking or accepting contributions during sessions for their campaigns, political committees, parties or allied candidates.

Term limits mean the 2018 legislative session is Scott’s last as governor, but he’s expected to run for U.S. Senate this year, and he has been raising money hand over fist from special interests. Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam, meanwhile, is running to succeed Scott and also aggressively fundraising. So is Chief Financial Officer Jimmy Patronis, who is running for his first full term in the job to which Scott appointed him last year.

An anticipated bid for governor from Corcoran, a Republican who is putting off an announcement until after this year’s session, highlights another argument for passing Jenne’s proposal: fairness. The speaker is barred from fundraising until the session ends, but Putnam, a rival Republican, isn’t.

Corcoran has been one of the most adept politicians in Florida at persuading special interests to open their wallets. As Sentinel columnist Scott Maxwell pointed out this week, his political committee collected more than $5.4 million over the past six months.

Yet support from Corcoran for Jenne’s proposal wouldn’t be totally out of character for the speaker. He launched his two-year term as the House’s presiding officer in 2016 by unveiling a package of ethics and lobbying reforms for legislators. Becoming a supporter of a fundraising restriction on the position he’s seeking next would burnish his credentials as a reformer, and would separate him from the competition for the GOP nomination for governor. How about it, Mr. Speaker?