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Tallahassee Democrat: Our Opinion: Transparency

Monday, February 17, 2014

Help voters understand and follow campaign finances

For all our complaining about government — and who doesn’t like to complain about government? — there is one thing every Floridian should point to with pride: our state’s commitment to open government.

From major proposals to routine emails, Florida’s citizens have access to a wide range of official documents.

Combine these open-records requirements with strict limits on what officials can do outside of the “sunshine,” and you end up with a unique level of transparency.

In last year’s legislative session, Senate President Don Gaetz and House Speaker Will Weatherford made election reform a priority.

One result of the effort was HB 569. It addressed contribution limits and the secretive committees of continuous existence, but it also required the state Division of Elections come up with a proposal for a mandatory statewide electronic filing system for campaign contributions.

This new system would include candidates for local offices, offering a big leap in transparency.

On Monday, the LeRoy Collins Institute at Florida State University and Integrity Florida released a report titled “Tough Choices: Best Practices in Campaign Finance and Public Access to Information” ( It offers an analysis of our state’s policies on campaign financing but also looks to other states for ideas on policies, presentation and use of information, ways of formatting data and how the state’s system connects with local governments.

It’s not simply a matter of offering more. Florida’s current filing system for campaign finances is 9 years old. Though the Collins/Integrity Florida report rated the current website as “good” for being searchable and for ease of downloading data, it acknowledged that using the system would “likely be somewhat frustrating” for the average person.

In addition, the current system does not help track so-called “soft money” or specific issues targeted by contributors. For that reason, the state earned a “D” grade for disclosure requirements in a recent scorecard from the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

The Division of Elections offered two options for creating a new system: an in-house project with an initial cost of about $530,000 that would take at least three years, or a vendor-driven system that could cost $1 million, but could be running in three to 18 months.

Cost is always a factor, but in this case, speed is, too. Making campaign financing more transparent can’t happen too soon. In addition, the Legislature should require more detail from filers whose ads or other communications target a specific issue or candidate.

With these improvements, Florida might even get an A on the next scorecard from the National Institute on Money in State Politics. And Floridians can be even prouder of their state’s reputation for open government.

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