TALLAHASSEE | Rep. Joe Gruters has a stack of mailers from his 2016 campaign containing negative messages about him. He can’t figure out who or what entity financed these mail pieces.
Now a member of the Florida House representing Sarasota, Gruters has filed a bill intended to eliminate some of the so-called “dark money” in Florida politics. His bill would prohibit political committees and electioneering communications organizations from transferring money between each other, which is often used to shield the true origins of negative attacks during elections.
Sen. Debbie Mayfield, who also saw the influence of “dark money” in her primary last year for a Central Florida seat, filed an identical proposal in the Senate.
Although many lawmakers have been the target of campaign attacks funded by political committees in this manner, Mayfield and Gruters’ proposal isn’t getting much traction. Neither House Bill 1057 nor Senate Bill 1178 has been scheduled for a committee hearing, and time is running out.
On the House side the gatekeeper is Rep. Matt Caldwell, chairman of the Government Accountability Committee and a member of Speaker Richard Corcoran’s inner circle. Caldwell isn’t sold on the idea of limiting the money that flows between political organizations in the name of transparency.
“I wouldn’t say it’s an absolute ‘no,’ but it is a complicated issue and it’s not the kind of issue I just want to see roll on a lark,” he said last week.
A Times-Union analysis published in December focused on the 1,000 political committees active in Florida. It found that one in seven committees was difficult to trace, meaning it’s not clear who exactly is making decisions on that committee’s behalf. Money flowing between these political committees further muddied the waters and made it even more difficult to trace the origin of attack ads, the investigation discovered.
Caldwell, R-North Fort Myers, said he understands the concerns of legislators who have been the target of these “dark money” attacks. But he also doesn’t want to limit the rights of citizens to form political committees and weigh in on local issues while shielding their identities.
“Anonymity as a feature is a powerful tool for the average citizen,” Caldwell said. “That’s the nugget I’m still chewing on, and I haven’t figured out a way to quiet my soul on how we would balance those two priorities.”
The chairman of the first committee assigned to hear Gruters’ bill, Rep. Neil Combee, said he is interested in digging into the issue because he knows it has affected many colleagues.
“I think it’s one that we need to hear,” said Combee, R-Polk City, and the chairman of the Oversight, Transparency and Administration Subcommittee.
But Caldwell’s committee is the third and final stop for HB 1057 before it is eligible for a vote on the House floor. The Senate bill was also assigned to three committees.
The Republican Liberty Caucus of Florida is part of a coalition of conservative groups pushing for campaign finance reforms. Initially, the group wanted Gruters’ bill to have additional provisions but decided that a narrow focus would make the measure more palatable for lawmakers and focused on limiting transfers of money between political organizations.
“If we can get the bill passed, just that one thing will be huge in terms of cleaning up the legal laundering of campaign contributions,” said Bob White, a Melbourne resident who is a member of the Republican Liberty Caucus.
White and other members of the group traveled to Tallahassee last week to meet with lawmakers on the issue. He remains hopeful that the legislation will be put on committee agendas soon; Combee’s subcommittee is scheduled to have only two more meetings this legislative session.
“I don’t think it’s dead,” White said, “but it’s getting close to life support.”
Tia Mitchell, (850) 933-1321