ANALYSIS: Missouri ethics debate splits on money cap

Sunday, May 16, 2010 | 4:48 p.m. CDT; updated 8:49 a.m. CDT, Monday, May 17, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — Campaign finance caps for Missouri elected officials proved a near fatal blow for lawmakers trying to tighten political ethics rules. Now it marks the dividing line between those who contend lawmakers' final product is "one of the most aggressive ethics packages in this country" and critics who dismiss it as weak and "watered down."

The General Assembly gave final approval Friday to an ethics bill that does not reconstitute caps on how much money candidates can accept from donors.

Instead, the ethics legislation boosts the authority of the Missouri Ethics Commission by allowing it to launch investigations instead of waiting for complaints, restricts the shuffling of money between numerous political committees and requires quicker reporting of campaign donations when lawmakers or the governor are considering bills.

It also creates new crimes for lobbyists who do not properly report how much they spend on state officials, people who obstruct investigations into wrongdoing by the ethics board and elected officials who offer jobs to lawmakers in exchange for votes.

House and Senate Republicans contend that is a major step forward that will make Missouri's political climate cleaner and campaigns more transparent. Furthermore, they assert that donation limits never really belonged in a debate about ethics.

"Campaign finance caps have nothing to do with ethics. There, I said it," said sponsoring Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka. "And the Supreme Court of the United States agrees with me."

Jones — who started handling the House ethics bill after earlier bickering over campaign finance caps — said there has been too much focus on what is left out and not enough attention on the strength of what was included.

"What is in this bill is true ethics and accountability reform," he said.

But for Gov. Jay Nixon and House Democrats, campaign finance limits have become a shibboleth, distinguishing between meaningful changes and minimal tweaks.

And on those merits, Nixon contends the ethics package falls short.

"The bill that has made it to my desk is clearly a watered-down version," he said. "I'll review it carefully and see if it's better than the current law. I think it was a real missed opportunity."

House Democrats praised the progress on ethics but called for another round of changes that includes restrictions on lobbyists, a ban on legislators working as political consultants and campaign finance caps. Minority Leader Paul LeVota, who is term-limited and will not be returning, said his colleagues will keep pushing.

"The people of Missouri voted for limits on the campaign; they are concerned about the influence of money in the political system," said LeVota, D-Independence. "That's why voters put on limits, and we should reinstate those to make sure that accountability and trust are renewed."

House Republicans said they too want to strengthen the ethics rules next year.

Legislative leaders and Nixon alike called for an ethics overhaul this year after three St. Louis Democrats resigned from the Assembly following guilty pleas to federal felonies. A former Republican House speaker also has faced a federal investigation into his handling of legislation and an unrelated state felony charge over an allegation that he assaulted a woman during sex.

Yet, the focus during the ethics debate quickly centered on what to do with campaign finance.

Missouri voters first implemented donation caps in the 1990s, and the Assembly voted to eliminate them in 2006. That law was tossed out by the state Supreme Court because of procedural problems, and the Republican-led Assembly voted again to repeal donation limits with about one hour remaining in the 2008 session.

Missouri in 2008 capped donations at $1,350 for candidates to statewide offices, $625 for Senate candidates and $325 for House candidates.

A special House committee that was created to recommend ethics changes this year proposed to restore campaign contribution limits at $5,000 per election for all candidates. But that proposal stalled progress on any ethics changes in the House, where roughly three-quarters of the members there had decided two years to scrap limits.

Eventually, House leaders forced through their own proposal and agreed during negotiations with senators to keep out campaign donation caps.

But with lawmakers vowing to use this year's bill as a foundation for more changes, and the next election year just two years away, the campaign finance battle lines for the next round already are set.

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