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Miami Herald: Overhauling Florida’s campaign database could increase access but cost money

Monday, February 10, 2014

When Florida lawmakers raised campaign contribution limits last year, they said the goal was to make the money in politics more transparent. There was one problem: the state’s campaign finance website.

The 9-year-old system is difficult and cumbersome, and it has no provision for tracking the explosion in soft-money checks to the candidates and issues the money is intended to target. A campaign finance watchdog, the National Institute on Money in State Politics, gave the state a D grade for that oversight in a report last year.

Lawmakers proudly touted the reforms they passed last year: raising the minimum contribution limits for legislative campaigns from $500 to $1,000 and to $3,000 for statewide candidates; and increasing the frequency of reporting, making the website data more current. But the law did nothing to make the independent expenditures, or soft money, easier to track or to make the website more user-friendly.

Now there is new momentum to address that issue. The new law included a little-noticed requirement that the state submit a proposal for replacing Florida’s outdated site with a statewide electronic filing system for all state and local campaign finance data.

In a December report to House Speaker Will Weatherford and Senate President Don Gaetz, the Division of Elections recommended the state require all state and local candidates to submit their campaign finance information to a statewide website, offering two price tags and timelines to do it. One option offered was that the state could use existing staff and spend three years and $534,000. Or, it could hire a private contractor; according to estimates from 10 companies, the cost would be $1 million and the time frame would range from three to 18 months.

Florida has a long way to go before its local reporting of government campaign finance is easily accessible. According to the Division of Elections, only half of Florida’s 67 counties have a mandatory electronic campaign finance reporting system, and nearly all of Florida’s 410 cities still use a paper reporting system.

Maria Matthews, director of the Division of Elections, warned lawmakers that an update would be a big job.

“Given the scope and complexity of the proposal, the Division anticipates that it could take up to three years to develop, design, test, provide training and implement a statewide EFS [electronic filing system],” she said.

Weatherford and Gaetz have announced that they want Florida to create a state technology office, and supporters believe updating the website is a job the new agency could tackle. Gov. Rick Scott included no new money in his budget for the effort, so it would be up to lawmakers to find the funds.

Meanwhile, Integrity Florida and the Leroy Collins Institute, both Tallahassee nonprofit research groups, reviewed the websites in other states and have a handful of recommendations.

In a report to be released on Monday, they suggest that Florida could improve its campaign finance transparency by simply opening the data for the public to access, and making it available in real time, as the state of Hawaii has done.

The Hawaii site is easily searchable. Users can use the site to create pie charts and see what percentage came from various industries and regions.

“If the governor and legislative leaders want to leave a lasting legacy to helping the public follow the money, then an enhanced campaign website would follow the money,” said Dan Krassner, director of Integrity Florida.

Carol Weissert, director of the Leroy Collins Institute, said the timing is right to update the site.

“There’s a lot of cynicism and distrust of government,” she said. “To the extent we can say here’s what’s going on and here’s who’s giving money we can dispel this lack of trust.”

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