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Money, politics and Florida elections

By James Call


Tallahassee, FL – Most Americans today agree with Mark Twain when he said we have the best government money can buy. James Call reports a CNN/Opinion Research Corporation survey found two-thirds of respondents say elections are usually for sale to the candidate who can raise the most money.

The survey taken the first week of June indicates public cynicism about money and politics is growing. In 1997, 59-percent of respondents said elections were for sale to the highest bidder. That number has grown today to more than 66-percent.

The interests of money and policy making collided in the Florida Senate President's office in February. Reporters wanted to know if Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a candidate to challenge U.S. Senator Bill Nelson next year, would collect campaign contributions during the 2011 Florida Legislative Session.

Senate President Mike Haridopolos: "He's raising money and he raised money in the last days of the budget."

Unlike Nelson, Haridopolos leads a Senate chamber in making policy. He has life and death power over bills while Nelson is just one out of 100 senators.

Haridopolos: "He's raising plenty of money and I you are asking me to basically where he goes and get to raise money the next 60 days and you are telling me I shouldn't."

Haridopolos continued to raise money: 2.5 million in the first quarter of 2011, to Nelson's 1.6 million. And politically, the decision made sense.

The National Institute of Money in State Politics found in 2008 candidates with the most money won 80-percent of the time. Civic minded groups and academics say big money appears to be driving people away from participating in elections and fuels a cynicism about government in general.

"A lot of our choices are eliminated due to campaign finance rules before you get to the polls. Before you get to the primary poll."

Brad Ashwell is with the Florida Public Interest Research Group. The group supports reform because it says the high cost of campaigns leads to only the wealthy having the means to participate in public policy debates and decisions.

"You only have those candidates who are able to raise enough money and it's not that they were able to raise enough money that they have support of the people it is because they were able to get the support of a few wealthy donors or large corporate interests or they are party favorites. There's not space for a challenger who doesn't have these resources but who have great ideas to make a great candidate to run."

Ashwell disagrees with a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gave corporations more freedom to spend money to promote a candidate. That decision, along with the Legislature once again permitting leadership funds which allows House and Senate leaders to funnel money to candidates, will increase the amount of money spent raised this election cycle.

According to the National Institute of money in state politics, in 2010, the average Florida House candidate had a campaign war chest of 95-thousand dollars; Senate candidates raised about 243-thousand dollars, on average. University of Central Florida Political science professor Terri Fine agrees with Ashwell that those figures can have a sticker-shock effect on many citizens considering a run for office.

Fine: "There are qualified people out there who may feel discourage from running for office. They might say, I have no chance of winning'."

Reporter: "So Mark Twain was correct then? We have the best government money can buy?"

Fine: "Maybe he is today. But I hate to believe he will be right in 25 years. The reason I pick that number because particularly in Florida now there is a requirement that students take civics in 7th grade."

Fine is the Associate Director of the Lou Frey Institute at UCF. It is implementing the Sandra Day O'Connor Civics Education Act which requires students to pass a civics test to be promoted to high school. Fine explains the Supreme Court decision on money and free speech sort of ties the hands of people wanting to regulate money in political campaigns. She said the key to combat cynicism is to educate about how government works and the obligations of citizenship in a free society. She is working to change the culture so that money does not have a corrosive effect on politics. Sort of like what the U.S. did with cigarette smoking in the 1990s. Smoking has decline by more than 20-percent.

"No amount of money is going to get me to smoke cigarettes. No amount of messaging, no amount of handsome and attractive people telling me what to do. No amount of movie stars telling me what to do is going to make it happen. Imagine transferring that to the political arena?

If people are civically knowledgeable about what the truth is because they are doing their homework then those skewed messages are not going to have an impact on their political behavior; such as their vote choice."