Who Actually Benefits From Public Financing?

Aug 25, 2017

Whether they know it or not, Florida taxpayers are funding certain statewide political campaigns. Supporters say the practice promotes diversity at the ballot box. But now the speaker of the house is taking aim at the system. Here's a look at who is actually benefiting from public financing.

Credit Joe Brusky via flickr / https://www.flickr.com/photos/40969298@N05/13301353274/

Speaker of the House Richard Corcoran wants Florida to reverse its public financing of state elections. While he isn’t running for statewide office, or at least not yet, his criticisms could change the calculus for those who are. Corcoran says the practice insulates the insider political class and takes away from school children and first responders. Ciara Torres-Spelliscy teaches elections law at Stetson University and she says public financing does the opposite. 

“The claim that public financing is welfare for politicians? That is a bit of an empty slogan," she said. "You could also characterize it as fair fight funds for democracy.”

In Florida, eligible candidates for governor and cabinet seats can qualify for matching funds.

“So with a matching fund system, the state will match a small contribution from a Florida donor up to $250. The candidate who accepts public financing also has to agree to an expenditure limit,” she said.

Torres-Spelliscy says too many candidates get caught in a downward spiral of weak fundraising.

"The claim that public financing is welfare for politicians? That is a bit of an empty slogan."

“It becomes much more difficult to get the attention of the two major political parties, so that they’re taken seriously. It becomes difficult for the media to take them seriously," she said. "And it’s totally frustrating because these are doctors and lawyers and professors and they are just seen as not serious candidates merely because of money.”

Public financing is supposed to counteract that. The idea caught on with presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in 2016, who liked to boast his independence from billionaire donors.

“Unless we move to public funding of elections, young people will continue to have to beg campaign fund from the rich and the powerful. That I want to see end!”  he said to a cheering crowd.

But in Florida in practice, underdog candidates from diverse backgrounds aren’t the ones making bank. Partly because candidates have to clear a baseline before they’re eligible. Cabinet contenders have to raise $100,000, and those running for governor have to raise $150,000. Democratic Senator Perry Thurston says that’s disqualifying some of the candidates who need the money most.

“Maybe the amount could be lowered in terms of what a candidate has to raise before they have matching funds,” Thurston said.

Thurston ran against incumbent Pam Bondi in 2014 for the attorney general seat. Bondi racked up $328,000 in state matching funds alone, outstripping the amount Thurston raised in his entire campaign. In past campaigns, Bondi and Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam raised millions with the help of public funds. While some of their competitors struggled to scrape together 100 grand. Despite the eligibility issue, Thurston stands by the goal of public financing.

"These are doctors and lawyers and professors and they are just seen as not serious candidates merely because of money."

“I think the government would be better served if we could have an actual debate of the ideas, instead of saying who can raise the most money. That’s not always how you get the best representation,” Thurston said.

But some challengers turn down public money, even when they do qualify, like former Chief Financial Officer and one time governor’s candidate Alex Sink, a democrat.

“Let me first say it was a matter of tremendous debate within my campaign,” Sink said.

She says she didn’t take public funds in 2010 because of the severity of the great recession.

“I just believed that it was inappropriate to take taxpayer dollars to help finance my campaign,” she said.

Sink says there was a time when the system was viable and the public understood…

“Money is king in campaigns. And unless you had a system to level the playing field if you will, or limit the amount of money that could be spent that we were going to end up in a free for all,” she said.

Flash forward to 2017…

"Maybe the time has come to say that public financing is just not viable."

“And actually that’s where we are now. We’re in a free for all. We weren’t anticipating Citizens United cases and private funding at the level we’ve seen in the past five or six years,” she said.

The 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision Citizens United removed the limits on private spending. That flood of so-called dark money, Sink says, makes public financing indefensible. $2 million in taxpayer funds in a $50 million governor’s race won’t make a bit of difference, she says.

“And with so many critical needs in our state...education’s underfunded. Transportation’s underfunded," she said. "I personally think that I agree with Speaker Corcoran that maybe the time has come to say that public financing is just not viable.”

At the writing of this story, only Republican Matt Caldwell, candidate for agriculture commissioner, has announced he won’t take taxpayer funding. The 2018 hopefuls have until June to make a final decision. It remains to be seen whether public financing will make a difference at the ballot box.