JEFFERSON CITY — Secretary of State Jason Kander announced an ambitious proposal Tuesday to cap campaign contributions, ban lawmakers from accepting gifts and institute a cooling off period before lawmakers can become lobbyists, the latest in a string of attempts to rein in Missouri's ethics laws.
Kander, who serves as Missouri's chief election officer, said it's time for the state to update its loose ethics laws. Missouri is the only state that has no limits on campaign donations or lobbyist gifts, and the state also doesn't have a revolving door policy restricting lawmakers from becoming lobbyists the day they leave office.
"The legislature's dance around this problem has gone on long enough," said Kander, a Democrat who served in the House for four years before becoming secretary of state in January 2013.
It's unlikely that Missouri's Republican-led legislature would embrace the entire proposal, though some Republicans also have been talking about the need for ethics law changes.
Kander's proposal, which is being sponsored by Rep. Kevin McManus, D-Kansas City, would cap individual campaign contributions each election cycle to $2,600 to candidates for statewide office, $1,000 to those running for state Senate and $500 to state House candidates. It would also set a $32,400 annual cap on donations to political parties.
Democrats have pushed unsuccessfully for campaign finance changes previously. Calls from Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon last January to impose contribution limits went unheeded by the Republican-controlled legislature. Supporters of keeping Missouri's no-limit campaign finance system argue that it promotes transparency by allowing large donors to give directly, and publicly, to candidates rather than having to do so indirectly.
"The idea behind unlimited contributions was to have greater transparency and that you would have to go explain why you aren't bought and paid for by an interest," said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles.
Some Republicans this year also have proposed creating a revolving door policy on lawmakers becoming lobbyists and capping contributions, though at higher levels than Kander proposed.
From July to October 2013 — the most recent campaign contribution report available — Kander reported receiving nine contributions above his proposed limit. When asked about his personal campaign funds, Kander said people "work within the rules as they find them" but should push for change while in office.
The next campaign finance reports are due to the Missouri Ethics Commission on Wednesday.
Kander's plan does have a new twist from previous Democratic proposals — it would allow a whistleblower to get 10 percent of an Ethics Commission fine for reporting wrongdoing.
It would also prohibit lawmakers from becoming lobbyists until three years after they leave office and not allow them to become paid political consultants until they've been out of office for a year.
Under the bill, the Missouri Ethics Commission would gain new powers to enforce campaign finance laws and penalties for offenders would be steeper. Paid political consultants would also be required to register with the commission, a practice currently only performed by lobbyists.
Missouri has had an on-again-off-again relationship with campaign contribution limits. A court struck down a 1994 law approved by voters, but the U.S. Supreme Court later upheld separate contribution limits that had been passed by lawmakers.
Since then, the Republican-led legislature has twice repealed the limits. A 2006 law removed contribution limits for about six months before being struck down on procedural grounds by the state Supreme Court. The legislature then repealed the contributions limits again in 2008.