In campaign finance, what goes in must come out.
Contributions and who gives them get all the scrutiny but less attention is paid to expenditures: What the campaigns do with all the money they take in.
In Florida, candidates and committees are required to list only the most basic information about their expenses despite the tightening of campaign finance laws in recent years.
To be sure, most spending is self-explanatory, such as postage, printing, office supplies and campaign ads.
But others aren’t quite as obvious at first glance.
For example, the biggest ticket item on Attorney General Pam Bondi’s list of re-election expenditures is $50,000 to a Miami company called The Factor Inc., for “consulting.”
Bondi, a Tampa native, was first elected in 2010.
The public should get as much disclosure for expenditures as for contributions, argues Pete Quist, research director for the nonprofit, nonpartisan National Institute on Money in State Politics.
An upcoming project by the institute involves seeing how much those on the receiving end of campaign money try to influence laws and policy, just as some contributors do.
Information about “campaign expenditures are often more gray than the contributions we see,” Quist said. “Expenditures are reported just as bare descriptions without any standardized requirement for specific details.”
So campaigns often will list a description that simply says “consulting,” a common expense.
In Bondi’s case, the $50,000 consulting expenditure went to media consultant Ana Carbonell’s firm for “Hispanic outreach efforts,” according to Pablo Diaz, Bondi’s campaign manager.
That’s the kind of detail that should go into finance reports, Quist said. He acknowledged that one consulting firm may provide help in a variety of areas, even advising a candidate how to dress.
State lawmakers recently tweaked Florida’s campaign finance laws.
Just last year, they raised the $500 limit on individual campaign contributions to $1,000 in legislative races and to $3,000 in statewide campaigns.
At the same time, they did away with the shadowy “committees of continuous existence” that some elected officials created to take unlimited contributions for political slush funds.
State Sen. Joe Negron said laws and regulations on the books already provide for adequate disclosure.
Negron, a Stuart Republican who chairs the Senate’s budget committee, has several expenditures for “consulting” in his reports, but also has ones for “printed material,” “signage” and “T-shirts.”
“Consulting is part of a campaign that candidates pay for, and I think current law covers it pretty well,” he said.
After the 2013 overhaul, lawmakers wanted to “get an election under our belts” before considering any more changes, said state Rep. Kathleen Passidomo, a Naples Republican.
She was up for re-election this year, but didn’t get any opposition.
“Personally, I think it’s common sense,” said Passidomo, who chairs the House Ethics & Elections subcommittee. “You should explain what you spent money on.”
Her caveat is that inquiring minds can do research for themselves on who’s getting paid for what.
“I don’t disagree that more information is always a good thing, but it’s amazing what you can find on Google,” Passidomo said.
Openness advocates like Quist counter that they shouldn’t have to.
“Rather than a vague description, there should be a list of more detailed categories,” he said. “It might say not just ‘consulting,’ but ‘consulting related to television ads,’ or ‘consulting related to how to canvass door-to door.’”
Not every minimally described expenditure is in the thousands of dollars.
Tatiana Denson, a Democrat running to replace term-limited state Rep. Betty Reed in Tampa, lists a July expenditure of $3.28 at 7-Eleven on her campaign finance report.
The purpose just says “personal.”
“I don’t remember,” she said. “It may have been an error.”