Cutting the campaign caps

Tuesday, February 12, 2008 | 10:45 a.m. CST; updated 5:25 p.m. CDT, Sunday, July 20, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Months after the state Supreme Court tossed out a law allowing unlimited fundraising, senators considered separate bills that would again repeal the campaign caps and would allow politicians to get public money for their campaigns.

On Monday, Majority Leader Charlie Shields told a Senate panel that campaign contribution limits haven’t made politics cheaper, but have hindered transparency as politicians look for loopholes in the system.

Shields, R-St. Joseph, told the Financial and Governmental Organizations and Elections Committee that inflation has made politics more expensive and the state fundraising limits have made it more difficult to follow the trail of money to politicians.

As an example, he cited a 1990 state Senate race that shocked some for its expense when it cost $100,000 for a primary election. Shields said a Senate race now costs several hundred thousand dollars.

“Missouri politicians could give Colombian drug lords seminars in how to launder money,” Shields said. “We are that good at it.”

Lawmakers in 2006 approved a campaign finance law that repealed Missouri’s individual contribution limits of $1,275 per election to statewide candidates, $650 to Senate candidates and $325 to House candidates. As a result, many candidates started taking large checks.

But the Missouri Supreme Court reinstated the limits in a July 19 decision, striking down the repeal because it had been linked by lawmakers to another provision found to be unconstitutional.

Last month, the Missouri Ethics Commission raised the caps for statewide candidates by $75 to $1,350 per person. State Senate candidates can accept an extra $25 up to $675. Limits for House candidates stayed at $325.

There was no opposition voiced to Shields’ bill, but some House Democrats have criticized the attempt to repeal the limits.

The committee also considered legislation Monday similar to laws in Arizona and Maine allowing candidates to get public financing for their campaigns if they agree to limit how much money they raise and spend.

That bill was filed by Sen. Jeff Smith, who said his idea would be a more complete answer to the concerns raised by Shields.

Smith, D-St. Louis, said the current system forces lawmakers to pay more attention to those with the biggest checkbooks. He said repealing the campaign caps to fix the money problem increases accountability but doesn’t help those at a monetary disadvantage.

He likened it to a “mandate that every Missourian have a fire alarm but disbanding every fire department in the state.”

Under Smith’s plan, candidates would qualify for the financial support if they raise money from a minimum number of registered voters. It would take 50 donors for House races, 150 for Senate campaigns and 2,500 for gubernatorial bids.

Smith said the public financing idea could cost up to $10 million to $15 million in state funds, especially during years with contentious gubernatorial elections. But, Smith said it would also save money by allowing politicians to govern without paying so much attention to interest groups.

Sen. Kevin Engler, who is seeking re-election in November, said Smith’s idea would make it harder for candidates to combat efforts by outside groups to campaign against them. Nonetheless, he said lawmakers needed to make it clearer who is giving politicians money.

“The laundering is embarrassing,” said Engler, R-Farmington. “We do the best up here of trying to have the appearance of being ethical without being ethical.”

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