Breaking: County blocks campaign finance reforms, Russell pushes reform in Miami via Miami Herald

Miami Herald: "Russell to push for new campaign finance rules in Miami"


Miami Democrats and labor unions are still licking their wounds after their effort last fall to push a county campaign finance referendum onto the November ballot fell short. But they may soon get another shot in the city of Miami.

City Commissioner Ken Russell acknowledged in a recent interview that he plans to craft a ballot question that — similar to the stalled and polarizing countywide petition effort last year by An Accountable Miami-Dade — ostensibly seeks to tamp down the influence of vendors and lobbyists by limiting their ability to bankroll campaigns and influence votes.

He said details aren’t available, but he intends to bring a measure to the City Commission in time to hold a 2017 referendum.

“The specifics are not vetted out yet. I probably wouldn’t have wanted to go to press at this point on the issue,” Russell said when approached by the Miami Herald. “I think if a sweeping change is made, the lobbyists, developers and politicians will all play by the same rules.”

Russell, who said his motivation comes largely from his experience running for office in 2015, has two broad goals: to create a more transparent campaign reporting system for the city (something Clerk Todd Hannon is currently working on) and to determine “what contributions should be allowed and from whom, and if you have contributed, what are the rules about lobbying afterward?”

Last year, Russell helped a political committee backed by unions, Democrats and a national campaign finance reform organization push a petition drive that netted nearly 130,000 signatures and aimed to push campaign finance changes onto the November ballot. Among the proposed changes: a ban on donations from county vendors, their families and their lobbyists, and a lowering of the maximum contribution from $1,000 to $250.

Backers said they wanted to push special interests out of county politics and empower voters through a stronger public financing system. But critics said the proposal would actually drive special interest money further into the dark and strengthen labor groups.

County commissioners ultimately declined to place the item on the ballot, calling it misleading. A legal push to overturn their decision in time to hold a November referendum fizzled.

Russell has embraced progressive issues and legislation at the city. His former chief of staff just left to work as political director for the Miami-Dade Democratic Party, and his replacement attended last year’s press conference announcing the push for campaign finance reform and came from a union job.

But Russell says he’s not trying to bring a carbon copy of the county measure to Miami.

We’re really doing our homework on what we think is clearly going to create transparency. We’re certainly fearful of driving money underground,” he said. “We have access to plenty of people on the other side as well. I want to look at this 360 [degrees] before coming out of the gate.”

Miami Herald: "Petition drive could change how Miami-Dade political campaigns are financed"

A group seeking to force a November referendum on campaign finance reform delivers more than 125,000 signed petitions Tuesday, Aug.2, 2016, to the Miami-Dade Elections Department. Pedro Portal


A group of volunteers from An Accountable Miami-Dade, a political committee, unload boxes delivered in 2 trucks loads of more than 100,000 signed petitions to push the "campaign finance reform" measures in the county to the Miami Dade County Election Department headquarters in Doral, on Tuesday August 2, 2016.

Petitions call for Miami-Dade campaign finance reform 0:38

Miami-Dade County clerks joined a group of volunteers from An Accountable Miami-Dade political committee as they unload more than 125,000 signed petitions seeking to push campaign finance reform measures in the county, at the Miami Dade County Election Department headquarters in Doral, on Tuesday August 2, 2016. Miami-Dade County Clerk of Courts Harvey Ruvin supervises as a group of clerks from his office and volunteers from An Accountable Miami-Dade unload boxes filled with signed petitions to push campaign finance reform measures in the county, at the Miami Dade County Election Department headquarters in Doral, on Tuesday August 2, 2016. A group of volunteers from An Accountable Miami-Dade, a political committee, unload boxes delivered in 2 trucks loads of more than 100,000 signed petitions to push the "campaign finance reform" measures in the county to the Miami Dade County Election Department headquarters in Doral, on Tuesday August 2, 2016.

Declaring Miami-Dade’s system of funding political campaigns “broken,” a coalition of union workers, activists and politicians moved to drastically change how countywide elections are fought and won Tuesday by submitting more than 125,000 signed petitions to the county clerk of courts and potentially forcing a November referendum.

The petitions — enough to fill two U-Haul trucks — were delivered to the county’s elections headquarters in Doral, where they will be counted and vetted. If enough signatures are verified, county commissioners will have to decide in the coming weeks whether to adopt proposed campaign finance legislation themselves or put the issue before voters.

Under the proposal sponsored by political committee An Accountable Miami-Dade, campaign contributions to candidates for county commission, mayor and school board would be capped at $250 a person or corporation, down from $1,000. Major county vendors and their lobbyists and principals would be barred from contributing to candidates. And a system that affords candidates matching public contributions for donations of up to $100 by county residents would potentially enable candidates to multiply those donations six-fold.
“This is about restoring balance to our political process,” said Gihan Perera, executive director of The New Florida Majority, an independent nonprofit that works to politically empower marginalized populations. “Our communities often don’t exercise their rights because they often feel the political process is rigged, corrupt or not in their interest.”

THIS IS ABOUT RESTORING BALANCE TO OUR POLITICAL PROCESS-Gihan Perera, executive director of The New Florida Majority

The proposed changes wouldn’t take effect until the next county election cycle if the measure passes, but come during an election season in which millions have been raised to fund campaigns for county office. More than $5 million has been raised in the race for county mayor alone between incumbent Carlos Gimenez and challenger Raquel Regalado.

David Donnelly, CEO of Every Voice, a nonprofit that seeks to implement campaign finance reform around the country, said the goal in Miami-Dade was not only to reduce the influence of businessmen holding and seeking government contracts but also to create greater value for the contributions made by the average voter and help grass-roots candidates have a puncher’s chance. Donnelly’s organization provided more than $250,000 in cash and resources to the petition drive, led by leaders of local groups from Service Employees International Union, the League of Women Voters of Miami-Dade County, and Engage Miami, among others.

“If this law passes in the fall, we believe it will be one of the strongest policies found anywhere in the country when it comes to lifting up the voices of regular people,” Donnelly said.

-J.C. Planas, elections attorney

But some question the wisdom of what’s being proposed. J.C. Planas, a former state representative and attorney specializing in election law, said the effort is well-intentioned but won’t improve elections or make them more transparent.

Planas said the proposal could run afoul of the U.S. constitution by placing disproportionate restrictions on specific classes of people, and could actually further empower unions and political parties, who aren’t limited in their contributions to political committees by the legislation. Critics of past campaign finance reform proposals related to government vendors have also worried that donors blocked from contributing to campaigns will simply find other, less transparent means of contributing money.

“I think it’s a solution in search of a problem right now, however well-intentioned it is,” said Planas. “Right now, with the campaign finance system we have, everything is transparent. We have monthly reporting. Everyone can go and find out who’s contributing to any group.”

The fate of the petition drive now rests in the hands of county commissioners, who under county law have 30 days to direct the elections supervisor to begin vetting petition signatures. Commissioners are currently on August recess, so it’s likely Chairman Jean Monestime would need to call for a special meeting.

The supervisor of elections has 30 days to verify petition signatures. If enough are verified, the county commission would then need to decide whether to adopt the proposed legislation itself, or place a ballot question during the next eligible election.

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