July in an odd-numbered year used to be a pretty quiet time in Missouri politics. The legislature is not in session. There are no primary elections looming in August or general elections in November.
It’s even safe for a lobbyist to head over to Madison’s in Jefferson City for a quiet lunch without having to open up his wallet for a few legislative moochers.
But these days, in the no-limits zone of Missouri campaign-finance law, there’s no such thing as an off season.
Witness the haul in the first two weeks of July, in which an astounding $2,647,150.01 in big checks (those that are more than $5,000) have already been written.
The biggest, of course, came from the undisputed king of the political checkbook, retired financier and anti-tax crusader Rex Sinquefield, who on July 11 wrote a very self-serving $1.3 million check to a political action committee named Grow Missouri.
The hypocritically named committee exists to spend Mr. Sinquefield’s money (he’s the only reported donor so far) under the auspices of a “coalition” of business groups, trying to convince state lawmakers to overturn Gov. Jay Nixon’s very smart veto of House Bill 253.
That’s the bill that would give Mr. Sinquefield and others like him a massive state tax cut, while state funds available for education and roads and other services middle class and poor Missourians depend on get cut by $800 million or so.
It would, in effect, tie a cement block to the state, which is barely afloat as a result of its already comparatively low taxes and low spending on schools and other state services.
The telling thing about Mr. Sinquefield’s check is how many times state lawmakers, during the debate on House Bill 253, denied that Mr. Sinquefield, the instigator of the legislation and the primary donor behind it, had anything to do with it.
“This is about competing with Kansas,” they said, until it became clear that Kansas was going bankrupt after its own Sinquefieldian tax cut (he donated big there, too), and then lawmakers ran from that opinion, too.
The beauty of Mr. Sinquefield’s big check, as disgusting as it is to democracy, is that it lays it all out there for Missourians to see.
This one very wealthy man is trying to buy himself a legislature. Your elected officials are willing to do his bidding. It’s all very simple.
Except when it’s not.
Big check writers
Among the other big checks written this month was one for $500,000 to Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, from a family trust. The donation serves as a down payment of sorts on a future statewide race for office, which means he is now personally invested in his political future. So much for public service.
Similarly, St. Louis County Council member Steve Stenger, D-Affton, wrote himself a $100,000 check last week. He is considering a run for county executive against incumbent Democrat Charlie Dooley, who pulled in his own $100,000 check this month from . . .wait for it. . .Rex Sinquefield.
Thus is the reality of the political horse race in Missouri. Mr. Sinquefield picks his horse, and the other horses have to find money to compete.
The only winners here are the political oxpeckers — the consultants and other operatives profit from it. In the animal kingdom, oxpeckers are birds that feed off ticks on the backs of large animals.
In the political kingdom, they are one of the root causes of how divided this nation has become. Division begets angst which begets a political action committee which begets a big donation which begets more division.
Bad for Missouri
In his state of the state address this year, Mr. Nixon laid out the case for why all this out-of-control spending is bad for the citizens of the state.
“Each time a wealthy individual or business or special interest sends a check for $20,000 or $50,000 or $100,000 to a candidate, the public’s trust erodes a little bit more,” Mr. Nixon said. “And eventually, if we continue on this path, there will be no trust left at all.”
In that speech, Mr. Nixon threatened the legislature with a plan to do “everything in his power” to put an initiative to limit campaign contributions on the Missouri ballot if lawmakers didn’t address the issue.
They didn’t. And now it’s time for Mr. Nixon to put his money where his mouth is.
Big money, unlimited money, dirty money and laundered money is destroying the integrity of the Missouri political process. Today, when Mr. Nixon speaks to the St. Louis Regional Chamber, he should ask local business leaders — some of whom have been part of the problem — to help him clean up Missouri politics.
Think about this: Regardless of one’s position on the issue, Missouri is spending an incredible amount of time and money debating tax-cut legislation (instead of school or health care funding, for instance) primarily because one wealthy man wrote many big checks in both Missouri and Kansas to force the debate.
Missouri is drowning in a flood of political money. It’s time to dam it up.
Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.