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Biting the apple of campaign finance reform

By TIM NICKENS Times Political Editor

© St. Petersburg Times, published May 9, 1999


Toni Jennings used a simple, homespun metaphor to describe a last-ditch attempt at campaign finance reform.

"If you take the whole apple, sometimes you choke," the state Senate president said as the legislative session wound down. "If you do it bite by bite, you accomplish the same goals."

In the end, the Orlando Republican could not entice her Republican colleagues to even nibble. Gov. Jeb Bush was indifferent, and House Republicans were downright hostile to Jennings' efforts to reduce the influence of large political contributions.

Meanwhile, the GOP was busy chewing on Bill Nelson.

Nelson is the insurance commissioner and a Democrat who plans to run for the U.S. Senate next year. He is a moderate with statewide name recognition, and that makes Republicans nervous.

While Jennings, who is eyeing the Senate race herself, tried to get her campaign finance legislation moving, the state Republican Party attempted to divert attention to Nelson.

In a half-page ad headlined "Voter Alert" in the Tallahassee Democrat, the GOP asked voters to demand that Nelson reveal whether he intends to accept money for the Senate campaign from the insurance industry he regulates.

That is a reasonable question, and Nelson offers an adequate response.

Candidates for insurance commissioner can accept no more than $100 from insurance companies and their officers. Nelson went further last year and did not accept any money from the companies or their officers. In a U.S. Senate campaign, Nelson said Friday, he also won't accept money from insurance company PACs (federal candidates cannot accept corporate contributions of any type).

Nelson is going beyond what that law requires. Yet the same Republicans who will not embrace significant campaign finance reform are pounding away.

Florida Republican Party Chairman Al Cardenas said Nelson still accepted thousands of dollars last year from insurance adjusters, agents and brokers.

"Who do you think solicits these contributions?" Cardenas asked. "Insurance companies call these people, they solicit the money, they bundle the checks, and they give it to Bill Nelson."

That is probably true.

But Cardenas is pointing and shouting "Fire!" when the larger threat is the one Republicans won't address.

The GOP that is criticizing Nelson is the same GOP that accepted more than $440,000 from Bankers Insurance Group of St. Petersburg last year. In fact, Bankers was the state party's top soft money contributor. While Bankers officials have said they were interested in other issues beyond insurance, it is no secret they wanted Nelson out.

In a perfect world, candidates would not be able to hit up for contributions the industries they help regulate. That would mean Nelson would not take money from anyone tied to the insurance industry, and he couldn't take industry money laundered through national or state parties.

But in a perfect world, Republican Tom Gallagher probably couldn't take any insurance money, either. After all, Gallagher was Nelson's predecessor as insurance commissioner. He probably has a long list of potential industry contributors to a U.S. Senate race.

Another Republican candidate for Senate, U.S. Rep. Bill McCollum of Altamonte Springs, is vice chairman of the House banking committee. That's the committee that has long debated how banks, insurance companies and securities firms can dip into each other's business.

Funny thing.

McCollum collected more than $84,000 from the banking industry and more than $42,000 from the insurance industry in the 1997-98 election cycle, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics. Those were his top two types of contributors.

In a perfect world, McCollum wouldn't be taking money from those interests.

But the world of campaign finance is far from perfect. At least direct contributions to Senate candidates are limited to $1,000 each. They also are easy to trace, and voters can determine for themselves which contributions represent a conflict.

The soft money that flows into national and state parties is a larger, more serious problem. The size of the contributions is unlimited, and the parties launder the money so their candidates are clean. The connections between the Bankers Insurance contributions to the state GOP and Ireland appear obvious, but there is no paper trail that proves them.

Jennings received credit from former Democratic Gov. Reubin Askew, legislators from both parties and the citizen advocacy group Common Cause for her efforts to limit soft money flowing into the state parties. The Senate passed her reforms early in the legislative session and even sent a watered-down version to the House in the final week.

Bush, who magnificently exploited the soft money loopholes to raise millions last year, and House Republicans never gave her a chance.

But Senate Majority Leader Jack Latvala of Palm Harbor does not plan on letting the issue drop.

Latvala said he will find a lawyer to help him draft a constitutional amendment that would impose the same limit Jennings sought: A $5,000 cap on soft money contributions to the state political parties. He said Jennings and Senate Democratic Leader Buddy Dyer, both of Orlando, may help him lead an effort to start getting signatures to get the amendment on the 2000 ballot.

"If we can't get their attention one way," Latvala said of the proposal's opponents, "we'll try to get it another way."

By taking the whole apple directly to the voters.

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