ANALYSIS: Missouri officials consider campaign limit reversal

Sunday, February 21, 2010 | 4:48 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY— Missouri House members are pondering whether to undo their most recent change to the state's campaign finance rules — a shift that supporters had touted just a few years ago as bringing accountability and transparency to Missouri political campaigns.

A special House committee tasked with preparing changes to Missouri's political ethics rules is planning this week to reintroduce the state's campaign finance limits.

The legislature first voted to eliminate donation limits in 2006, but that law was tossed out by the Supreme Court over procedural problems. The Republican-led Legislature voted again to repeal campaign donation limits with about one hour remaining in the 2008 session.

That mid-election year change did away with donation limits of $1,350 for candidates to statewide offices, $625 for Senate candidates and $325 for House candidates.

Since repealing the limits, candidates have received more than 800 donations of more than $5,000. Over the last three years, $28 million has been donated in bundles of more than $5,000.

Now in the midst of another election year, some House members are proposing to overturn their earlier decision and go back to restricting political donations.

Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, the chairman of the ethics panel, was among 79 Republicans and four Democrats who voted in 2008 to repeal campaign finance limits. Wilson said campaign donation restrictions will be part of ethics legislation and that the debate now is focused on how high to set the limit.

"There is no way this bill gets out of this committee without campaign finance limits of some form," said Wilson.

That is a major policy shift for a House in which roughly three-quarters of the lawmakers who voted to repeal campaign finance limits remain. That includes Wilson and all but one of the six other Republicans on his committee.

As Republicans reconsider campaign finance limits, some Democrats have suggested that new caps be set high to reduce the temptation of manipulation to avoid the restrictions.

Republicans and Democrats — even in the often partisan House — generally have agreed this year on provisions banning lawmakers from working as political consultants for one another, requiring more financial disclosure and barring campaign money from being shifted among committees to obscure its origins.

This year's ethics push comes after three St. Louis Democrats resigned their seats in the legislature after pleading guilty to federal felonies. Meanwhile a federal grand jury in Kansas City is probing how legislation was handled by former Republican House Speaker Rod Jetton.

Gov. Jay Nixon condemned the repeal of campaign finance limits in 2006 and said during the 2008 gubernatorial campaign that he would have vetoed that year's legislation. Last week, the governor renewed his call for campaign finance limits but told members of The Associated Press and the Missouri Press Association that he was urging lawmakers to debate the issue and not threatening to veto ethics legislation if it did not have caps.

"One of the fundamental problems we have is these massive amounts of money coming into campaigns," Nixon said. "It is very difficult to imagine how a state rep can get a $50,000 check and people think that the air of that — that the perception of that — is not troublesome to our electorate."

Even Republicans who continue to oppose contribution limits acknowledge that a debate over campaign finance is likely.

Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said he would resist the push to reconstitute contribution limits because with the caps, there is less transparency over who is donating money.

"My constituents are less concerned with the amounts than knowing what's going on — they don't want some shell game," said Engler. "They can make the choice of whether they think you've been bought."

House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, also a backer of eliminating campaign finance limits, said he would vote against bringing back the caps but called it a "50-50 issue" in which the House could reverse itself.

"The majority rules in the House," said Tilley.

Even if that majority changes its mind.

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Ashley Crimaldi March 2, 2010 | 7:25 p.m.

Intersection, a local online talk show produced by KBIA just did a show on this. View the episode here:

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