How sneaky amendments get slipped into innocuous FL legislation (and bad things usually happen)

Senate organizational session
The Florida Senate chamber during the 2018 Senate organizational session Tuesday, Nov. 20, in Florida's Capitol building in Tallahassee. Credit: CD Davidson-Hiers.

In a shocking attack on the sovereignty of his own hometown’s government and the will of local people, Republican State Sen. Jeff Brandes has sneakily added language to an otherwise innocuous elections bill (SB 1372).

The language, added to his own bill (and therefore did not require a vote to change) would overrule St. Petersburg’s Defend our Democracy ordinance.

The ordinance was a significant campaign finance reform victory, one that forbids Super PACs in St. Petersburg elections. That is, candidates cannot collect so-called dark money, or get unlimited amounts of money from unnamed contributors.

The Defend our Democracy ordinance was passed by the St. Petersburg City Council in 2017 at the behest of more than 30 community organizations and thousands of individual citizens who attended municipal meetings, called and wrote to local elected officials, collected petition signatures, and rallied over a series of 18-plus months.

State Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg. Credit: Colin Hackley.

Now, in the middle of the 2020 legislative session, Brandes, who represents part of Pinellas County, claims his bill is about transparency.

This is laughable and a clear misinformation talking point.

His bill promotes secrecy — the infusion of large amounts of untraceable money — and invites outside monetary interference in our local elections.

Transparency is exactly what the St. Petersburg ordinance is about.

When large corporations want to “invest” in local elections, it is because they want something from the local politicians.

They might want to build a higher building than would normally be allowed; they might want to put a dumping station in your neighborhood, or they may want to rack up future favor.

The money they donate purchases expectations; the St. Petersburg City Council understood that and overwhelmingly passed the ordinance to protect the voice of the people and the sovereignty of the city. The City Council elected to make decisions in the genuine best interest of the people.

Further, if the bill becomes law as amended, St. Petersburg’s ability to keep foreign influence out of city elections once again becomes an issue.

We worry about developers eyeing our beautiful waterfront, especially the boatyards in the Old Southeast area and other vulnerable neighborhoods.

Under the current ordinance, large development corporations would have to prove that they don’t have more than five percent foreign investment money.

We had expected a legal challenge, and we are prepared for that fight for our sovereign rights; we do not want moneyed interests drowning out the voice of our citizens or clouding the judgment of our elected officials.

We are confident that the ordinance will hold up in the courts.  If the ordinance gets far enough, it would take a big bite out of Citizens United, the conservative group that went to the U.S. Supreme Court over elections financing.

The court’s decision in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case “unleashed a flood of corporate spending in American elections,” according to the Defend Our Democracy website.

What we didn’t expect was an attack from our own state senator.

The original voter bill is innocuous enough, updating a law sought by Florida’s state elections supervisors, and would be very difficult for state senators to vote against, even with the amended language.

Now that we understand what Brandes intends to do and we are alert, we must advocate for the amended language’s removal.