Money & Politics

A Certain Victory for Campaign Finance Reform Looms in Missouri

But opponents of reinstating limits on political donations plan to resume the fight they can't win at the ballot box in court.

A Certain Victory for Campaign Finance [...]

Missouri voters are poised to reduce the influence of money on their state's political system. (Photo by Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call)

Campaign finance reformers appear set to celebrate a big win next Tuesday in Missouri, where voters are expected to approve a proposed constitutional amendment that would, among other things, reinstate campaign-donation limits in a state that, this year alone, has seen more than $120 million poured into campaigns by writers of six- and seven-figure checks.

A victory is expected because opponents of the measure, known as Amendment 2, aren’t even bothering to campaign against it.

It’s not that those who favor keeping Missouri’s current rules — which the legislature changed eight years ago to remove any limits on campaign donations — have given up. Instead, they’re waiting until after the election. That’s when they hope to return to court and get the amendment revised or tossed out. Opponents maintain that several of the amendment’s provisions are unconstitutional.

But so far, the courts have disagreed. After the legislature refused to reinstate campaign finance limits, those who wanted an end to the six- and seven-figure political donations that have resulted launched an initiative-petition drive to get Amendment 2 on the ballot.

When the measure qualified, organizations trying to keep it off the ballot went to court. They lost over the summer, and in September the Missouri Supreme Court rejected their appeal.

Opposition lawyer Chuck Hatfield says his clients will regroup after the election and decide whether to go to court again. Among the organization’s he’s representing in the effort to keep the lid off campaign donations in Missouri are Legends Bank, a mid-Missouri bank, and the Missouri Electric Cooperative, represents the rural electrical utilities. Both would be barred from contributing to candidates or to political action committees, under the wording of the initiative. It would not affect affect Ameren, one of the biggest electric companies in the state, which still could give to its political action committee.

In the meantime, the opponents have decided not to use the traditional campaign route of attack ads or fliers to try to defeat the proposal.

The proposed amendment restricts contributions to $2,600 per election for candidates for statewide offices, judgeships or the Missouri General Assembly.

It also would cap donations to political party committees to $25,000 per election, and would bar direct donations from corporations or labor unions. They could, however, set up political action committees that could donate money — as corporations and labor unions do on a federal level.

The amendment also bars committee-to-committee transfers, and bars an out-of-state committee from donating to a candidate unless the committee is registered with the state Ethics Commission, which handles campaign finance reports and enforces the state’s campaign finance laws.

Opponents particularly object to a provision that would bar certain types of banks and member-owned organizations, such as public utilities, from forming political action committees to give to campaigns.

Both sides agree the amendment’s most glaring omission is that its limits don’t apply to candidates for local offices.

But Todd Jones, the lawyer who crafted the measure, says its provisions are better than the current setup, in which Missouri has no limits on campaign donations and few restrictions on campaign committees. Just since the beginning of the year, according to records downloaded from the Missouri Ethics Commission, donors writing checks of $100,000 and above have dropped an eye-popping $121 million into contests for Missouri state offices.

Not all of those contributions would be affected: the proposed ban does not affect issue campaigns, such as the one to pass Amendment 2. But it would end the practice of writing big checks to candidates.

“If you give a million dollars to a candidate, whose call are you going to take?” Jones said. “Are you going to take mine? Or are you going to take the donor’s? So there’s a lot of issues with undue influence and impact that donation has on the actual politician.”

Jones was working on behalf of Fred Sauer, a wealthy conservative who bankrolled the petition drive because he says he believes Missouri corporations and wealthy individuals have blocked some conservative causes.

Missouri’s two leading candidates for governor — Democrat Chris Koster and Republican Eric Greitens – are split on the question of donation limits. Both have received six-figure or seven-figure donations.

Greitens contends that donation limits “favor entrenched career politicians and wealthy self-funding candidates over political outsiders and those who challenge the political status quo.”

Koster is a former opponent of campaign-donation limits, but says he has changed his mind because of the increasing flood of huge donations.

Still, he calls Amendment 2 only “an important first step.”

“I think we’re going to have to build on it, because it’s not a perfectly written vehicle,” Koster said. In particular, he points to the lack of limits on local candidates.

Jo Mannies

Jo Mannies, a reporter for St. Louis Public Radio, has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall and the second woman sportswriter in the newspaper's history. She also spent four years in its Washington bureau. Follow this daughter of a high school basketball coach, mother of two lawyers and avid gardner on Twitter at @jmannies.