WHAT OTHERS SAY: Nixon finds some gumption, challenges in legislature

Wednesday, January 30, 2013 | 3:38 p.m. CST

Finally, Gov. Jay Nixon pulled the shroud off his bully pulpit. For the first time in five State of the State addresses, Mr. Nixon has given an ultimatum to the Republicans who control the state House and Senate.

“This year, if the legislature does not send a campaign contribution limit bill to my desk, I will do everything in my power to get it on the ballot and make sure it passes,” Mr. Nixon told a joint session of the legislature Monday night.

The legislature didn’t applaud. We will.

This page has been critical of Mr. Nixon for his failure in his first term to confront a legislature that seems fully committed to win a race to the bottom — the bottom of education funding, the bottom of tax collections, the bottom of road conditions, the bottom of social policies.

Mr. Nixon’s opening salvo of 2013 could change that dynamic.

In some ways, it would be easy to brush off an agenda that pushes concepts that Mr. Nixon previously avoided like an Ozarks copperhead.

He’s for Medicaid expansion, a topic he wouldn’t touch during last year’s re-election campaign. He’s for a bond issue for university, mental health and park projects, another proposal he danced away from for nearly four years.

And now, he’s willing to put his considerable political capital behind the idea of re-instituting the campaign contribution limits voters overwhelmingly approved in 1994. Republicans might sneer at the proposal, noting correctly that nobody benefited more from the status quo than the sitting governor, who regularly collected campaign checks of $10,000 to $100,000.

But they should not sneer at this:

“The people of Missouri have voiced their opinion on this matter already at the ballot box and their support for contribution limits was overwhelming,” Mr. Nixon said. “We all know it would pass once again.”

In 1994, nearly 74 percent of Missouri voters, more than a million of them, passed Proposition A, which put limits in place on how much candidates for office could accept direct campaign contributions. The constitutionality of that measure, argued before the U.S. Supreme Court by Mr. Nixon when he was attorney general, was upheld. Not even the high court’s awful Citizens United decision changed that.

The legislature tossed the voters’ will to the side and erased those limits in 2008. Missouri’s political system has sunk to the point where wealthy donors regularly write six-figure checks to candidates, increasing voter cynicism with every additional zero.

If presented to voters, campaign contribution limits will pass again. And this time, Mr. Nixon and voters need to get it right.

Proper limits need to be high enough to be realistic, so the incentive is not for most campaign donors to bypass the limits and spend their money on political action committees independent of candidates. Realistic limits, combined with disclosure rules that would stop the practice of obfuscating the source of funding, would improve the state’s political environment exponentially.

Missouri is one of just four states — Virginia, Utah and Oregon are the others, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures — that place no limits on campaign contributions. Missouri also places no limits on lobbyists’ gifts, making the state’s ethics laws “among the weakest in the nation,” as Mr. Nixon pointed out.

Here’s the result:

Last year’s speaker of the house, Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, stepped down from the legislature and immediately became a lobbyist. Unlike Congress and the majority of states, there is no waiting period for him to walk through the revolving door.

This year, still controlling about $1 million in campaign cash, he’s walking the marble floors of the Capitol representing the state’s biggest highway contractors. Republicans who, like Mr. Nixon, touted “no new taxes” over the past few years, suddenly are tax-hike converts. They’re talking openly about asking voters to pass a 1-cent sales tax increase to raise billions of dollars to invest in roads.

The concept of investing in highways, if not the specific tax vehicle, is a good one.

But the conversion among anti-tax Republicans walking along the potholed road to Damascus has been startling. Don’t think for a moment that Missouri’s weak ethics laws didn’t play a role in that about-face.

On Monday night, Mr. Nixon used that system to his advantage when pushing the Medicaid expansion program that would bring several billion dollars worth of federal investment in healthcare to Missouri. He packed the House gallery with pro-business, Chamber-of-Commerce types who financed the campaigns of the Republican majorities. Those business leaders overwhelmingly support the Medicaid expansion. They stood to send a message to their Republican friends.

The governor’s challenge is to use the existing environment to push a strong agenda this year, while following through with a promise to dismantle the very system that has given him a certain amount of leverage.

It’s cynical, perhaps. But a politician who will never run statewide again enjoys a certain freedom. It puts the governor on a lonely road.

But it’s the right road. Godspeed.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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