City Councilwoman Darden Rice of St. Petersburg, Florida, will introduce this coming Thursday a proposed ordinance before the St. Petersburg City Council to abolish super PACs and to prohibit spending by foreign-influenced corporations in city elections. The proposed ordinance is the first of its kind in the nation.
“This proposed ordinance is designed to protect the integrity of elections in St. Petersburg,” says Councilwoman Rice, the Vice Chair of the St. Petersburg City Council and a past president of the St. Petersburg League of Women Voters.
“The threats to our elections posed by unlimited super PAC spending and foreign corporate money have come to our city’s doorstep. With this ordinance, we can help safeguard our political process and play a critical role in the nationwide movement to reclaim our democracy.”
The ordinance will require corporations that spend money in St. Petersburg elections to certify they are not foreign-influenced, or owned in whole or a significant part by foreign entities. The ordinance will also establish limits on contributions to political action committees, thereby abolishing super PACs in local elections.
In March 2010, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in SpeechNow.org v. FEC opened the door to super PACs by holding that the federal law limiting contributions to political committees to $5,000 per person each year did not apply to a political committee that promised to make only “independent expenditures.”
While some federal appellate circuits have followed the SpeechNowruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, which has jurisdiction over federal cases in Alabama, Florida, and Georgia, has yet to rule on this question, nor has the U.S. Supreme Court or the Florida Supreme Court.
Super PACs have nearly doubled in number since 2012, and, according to the Miami Herald, donations to “groups [that] enjoy no limits on individual donations,” such as super PACs, “have skyrocketed” in recent years across Florida. Many campaign finance scholars argue that super PACs have now become vehicles for wealthy donors to evade campaign contribution limits designed to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption.
Alongside the rise of super PACs, the nation has also witnessed foreign corporate money flowing into our elections as a result of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. FEC, which swept away longstanding precedent barring corporate money in our political process. For example, in May 2016, Uber teamed up with fellow ride-hailing service Lyft to drench Austin, Texas, in $9 million worth of election spending in the hope of overturning a city law requiring drivers to submit to fingerprint-based criminal background checks.
Then, just weeks later, Uber disclosed an unprecedented $3.5 billion investment from the Saudi Arabian government, meaning that the Kingdom owns more than five percent of the company, along with a seat on its board of directors. And, in 2014, Chevron spent over $3 million backing city council and mayoral candidates in Richmond, Calif., a city half the size of St. Petersburg. Chevron — a multinational corporation whose stock ownership changes by the minute — was at the time facing a multimillion-dollar lawsuit from the city over a refinery fire that caused more than 15,000 people to seek medical treatment.