Nixon signs campaign ethics legislation

Wednesday, July 14, 2010 | 9:43 p.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — Gov. Jay Nixon signed into law new ethics rules Wednesday that are designed to clean up Missouri's political culture by requiring quicker reporting of some campaign donations and by strengthening the state's Ethics Commission.

Nixon and legislative leaders made ethics changes a priority after three St. Louis Democrats quit the legislature last year following guilty pleas to federal felonies. A former Republican House speaker also has faced a federal investigation into his handling of legislation.

But the governor and many Democrats have complained the ethics overhaul doesn't go far enough because it doesn't cap political campaign donations. In May, Nixon called the bill "watered-down" and a "missed opportunity."

Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said Wednesday that the legislation doesn't contain all the elements the governor believes are necessary for meaningful changes.

"He believes this bill must serve as the beginning, not the end, of ethics reform in Missouri," Holste said.

Instead of holding a public bill-signing ceremony, the governor approved the legislation in private meeting shortly before the deadline Wednesday to endorse legislation. Bills not signed or vetoed by the end of Wednesday automatically go into effect.

Holste said several bills have been signed this year without signing ceremonies.

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

Republicans argue that donation limits inhibit transparency by creating an incentive to hide, where money originates to allow more funds to be donated than is allowed. GOP lawmakers contend that campaign finance and political ethics are separate issues.

Under the new ethics law, the bipartisan six-member Missouri Ethics Commission will be allowed to launch its own investigations into possible violations after a unanimous vote. Currently, the commission can only act after receiving a complaint.

Lawmakers and legislative candidates also will need to report, within 48 hours, campaign donations of more than $500 received during the legislative session. A similar reporting requirement applies to statewide officials and candidates during the legislative session and when the governor is considering whether to veto bills. The bill also limits the shuffling of campaign donations among political committees.

When the legislature isn't meeting and the governor isn't considering whether to sign legislation, Missouri political candidates will still need to follow the existing requirement that they report donations of more than $5,000 within 48 hours.

Additionally, the bill creates new crimes for lobbyists who don't properly report how much they spend on wining and dining state officials, people who obstruct investigations into wrongdoing by the ethics board and elected officials who offer jobs to lawmakers in exchange for votes.

The law takes effect Aug. 28. The Missouri Ethics Commission said it would release an online tutorial to explain the bill and contact groups directly affected by it.

The ethics overhaul took an unusual path to passage. It stalled in the House amid controversy over reinstating campaign donation limits.

After Democrats tried to force debate on a bill with campaign donation limits of $5,000, Republican leaders pushed forward a new version that included controversial provisions dealing with elections, labor unions and driver's license fee offices. Those provisions eventually were removed.

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