Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Sun Sentinel: Excellent OPED on the corruption of corporate money in Florida politics ... by gimleteye


Florida’s campaign swamp is wider and deeper than Publix | Editorial

The uproar over Publix’s contributions to Agriculture Commissioner Adam Putnam’s campaign for governor is the latest chapter in a too-familiar story: the exorbitant influence of corporate money in Florida politics. Publix is merely one of many players in this high-stakes game.

The differences this time are the enormity of a single company’s support for a particular candidate, the resulting social media campaign against Publix, and its decision, announced Friday, to suspend political contributions.

“We would never knowingly disappoint our customers or the communities we serve,” a spokesman said.

There have been few occasions when public pressure yielded such immediate results.

The Fortune 500 company and some of its present and former executives had given at least $670,000 directly to Putnam’s campaign fund or to Florida Grown, his political action committee, and likely much more through other committees where the money can’t be traced.

What made the revelation more than a one-day sensation is Putnam’s unrepentant pro-gun advocacy at a time when most Floridians still feel shock and anger over the Valentine’s Day massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, where 17 people were killed and 17 injured.

Putnam’s light-hearted boast last year of being a “proud NRA sellout” was the lightning rod for the wrath.

All eyes on Publix: What crisis experts have to say about a rough week
Publix, one of Florida's largest employers, is facing heavy criticism over its donations to gubernatorial candidate Adam Putnam, who has referred to himself on social media as a "proud #NRASellout!"
It’s true, as the Lakeland-based grocer says, that Putnam is a home-town candidate whom it has backed throughout his 22-year career in the Legislature, in Congress and on the Florida Cabinet. Nor is there reason to doubt that it supports him for his pro-business policies, not his hands-off approach to gun safety.

But that defense raises two questions. What have those pro-business policies meant for Publix and other grocery stores overseen by the Division of Food Safety, which falls under Putnam’s Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services? And what might they say about the greater regulatory role Putnam would assume if he’s elected governor?

Fifteen months ago, a television station reported that seven Publix Stores in the Tampa Bay area had failed the department’s health inspections over issues such as rodent control and safe storage of meat. A day later, Putnam purged the inspections from his department’s website and got rid of the pass/fail grading system. Now, “re-inspection required” is the worst you’ll read about any store he oversees. At the time, Publix had given $160,000 to Florida Grown. The obvious favor to a major donor smells like rotten potatoes.

Publix's Putnam debacle offers lesson in good corporate governance | Opinion
In the long run, the storm over Putnam and guns probably will blow over for Publix, just as it did for competitor Winn-Dixie after its unsuccessful opposition to the 1971 referendum authorizing the corporate income tax. Its propaganda went home with every customer, printed in red on grocery bags. Gov. Reubin Askew, who sponsored the tax, fanned a public backlash against the company and won the referendum with 70 percent of the vote.

But corporations didn’t dominate Florida elections in the 1970s like they do now. It would have been impossible for any company to bankroll a candidate like Publix has Putnam. There were strict limits on contributions to candidates and also, on what candidates could spend. Neither did “independent” political action committees exist to raise and shell out money that favor certain candidates.

Askew spent only $533,629 to win re-election in 1974, the equivalent of $2.7 million today. Putnam’s official campaign and Florida Grown spent almost as much, $2.4 million, just last month.

So far, Putnam has raised $5.4 million in his own name and spent $1.8 million of it. But Florida Grown has raised $26 million since January 2017 and is sitting on more than $20 million. And that’s small compared to Gov. Rick Scott’s political committee, which has raised and spent $57 million since 2014.

Most such committees share common contributors, among them Florida Power and Light, U.S. Sugar, Florida Crystals, the Florida Chamber of Commerce and Associated Industries. FP&L, for example, has given $400,000 to Putnam and $940,000 to Scott, who’s running against U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson.

Current law sets a $3,000 per-person ceiling on contributions to a candidate’s official campaign, applied separately to the primary and general election. But there are no limits on donations to candidates’ political committees, such as Florida Grown, which operate under the fiction that they deal only with issues.

Name recognition is to politicians what location is to real estate. A television spot touting Putnam’s hard-right views on the issues of guns, immigration or voting rights is as useful to him as if it urged Republicans to choose him over Rep. Ron DeSantis of Jacksonville, his major opponent in the August primary.

“Your ad does not have to have express advocacy in it to be effective,” says Mark Herron, a Tallahassee attorney who’s an expert on election law. “If you put things in the right box, you could do almost anything in Florida.”

A 2016 opinion by the Division of Elections implied that an “issue” ad naming a known candidate could be considered a campaign contribution by his political action committee, subject to the $3,000 limit. It hasn’t been tested in court. It should be. In any event, U.S. Supreme Court precedents still allow corporations to spend whatever they wish, directly.

In the last two election cycles, Florida’s four largest energy companies contributed more than $43 million to state candidates, parties and political committees, as totaled in a report this month from Integrity Florida, a public interest watchdog.

The report, requested by the Alliance for Clean Energy, noted that the energy companies spent $20 million on an unsuccessful initiative to limit rooftop solar expansion. Another $40,000 in individual contributions went to legislators who sit on the council that nominates state energy regulators, and $1.8 million to Gov. Rick Scott, who appoints them. So it’s no surprise that the so-called Public Service Commission has largely become the industry’s puppets, at immense cost to Florida consumers.

Of the $670,000 that the Tampa Bay Times traced from Publix to Putnam, $410,000 was given through Florida Grown. It’s likely much more has found its way there through other committees to which Publix contributes.

For example, committees associated with Florida’s three largest business organizations received $2.3 million from Publix since January 2015 and gave $1.45 million to Putnam. A political committee run by a Venice accountant received $20,000 from Publix and its executive, and gave $221,237 to Florida Grown before shutting down last year. That was more than half its total spending. The Republican Party was the only other committee to which it contributed.

As these committees comingled Publix’s money with donations from other sources, it’s impossible to say how much of it eventually went to Putnam.

This form of laundering is legal. But it is wrong. It maximizes corporate power over government in ways that are nearly invisible to the public. It is a fault line that will continue to endanger democracy in Florida long after this election. That, more than guns or any other specific issue, is the scandal represented by Publix’s largesse to Putnam.

Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O'Hara, Elana Simms, Andy Reid and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Politicians keep barking money should be kept out of politics yet nothing is EVER done about it.