Commission will wait to rule on campaign contribution limits

Friday, October 5, 2007 | 2:21 p.m. CDT; updated 11:38 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 18, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — After hearing conflicting advice from Democratic and Republican party attorneys, the Missouri Ethics Commission chose Thursday to wait another month before deciding how to enforce a state Supreme Court ruling reinstating campaign contribution limits.

The commission is positioning itself to conduct a candidate-by-candidate analysis — first determining whether candidates received excess contributions, then following its normal hearing procedures for candidates who claim they are entitled to keep the money.

The Supreme Court on July 19 struck down a law that had repealed Missouri’s campaign contribution limits as of the start of 2007.

During the first six months in which unlimited donations were allowed, 119 candidates — running for everything from county commission to governor — collected nearly $7.2 million in contributions above the old limits, according to an analysis by Ethics Commission staff.

Topping that list was Republican Gov. Matt Blunt, with nearly $3.9 million in donations above the repealed donation limit of $1,275 per election for statewide offices. Second was Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon, who collected nearly $1.3 million in over-the-limit donations for his gubernatorial campaign.

Democratic Party attorney Don Downing argued to ethics commissioners Thursday that all candidates should have to return their excess contributions as a matter of equal treatment.

Republican Party attorney Robert Hess countered that no candidates should have to return the money and, as an alternative, that the commission should wait until next year to decide the issue in order to give the Legislature a chance to act first.

Commissioners were reluctant to wait that long, saying the Supreme Court decision seemed to expect them to act sooner.

Instead, commissioners chose to wait to act until early November. That will allow time for staff to analyze campaign finance reports due Oct. 15 to see if candidates received any additional over-the-limit contributions between July 1 and the date of the Supreme Court ruling.

Those reports also could show whether some candidates have voluntarily refunded over-the-limit donations, meaning the Ethics Commission would no longer have to consider taking action against them.

In a follow-up decision Aug. 27, the Supreme Court indicated its ruling should apply retroactively. But it left it to the Ethics Commission to decide if particular candidates should be spared from refunds because they had relied on the law in place at the time and would face a hardship if forced to return the money.

Downing argued that no candidates for the Legislature or statewide office could legitimately claim to have relied on the law repealing the contribution limits while accepting unlimited donations beginning in early January.

That’s because the same law repealing contribution limits also imposed a fundraising blackout during the annual legislative session, which began Jan. 3. But Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan on Jan. 8 imposed a temporary restraining order prohibiting the enforcement of the blackout period.

So if candidates were accepting unlimited donations during the legislative session, they had to be aware of the lawsuit and court ruling — and thus also aware of the possibility that a court could later invalidate the repeal of the contribution limits, Downing said.

Hess, however, claimed candidates could not have reasonably expected the repeal of the contribution limits to be invalidated any sooner than April 19, which is when he said attorneys for plaintiffs first claimed the repeal of the contribution limits could not stand if other portions of the law fell.

Ultimately, the Supreme Court decided that the fundraising blackout period was linked with the repeal of the contribution limits. Since Attorney General Jay Nixon’s office had not appealed Callahan’s decision striking down the blackout period, the law’s repeal of the contribution limits also had to be overturned, the Supreme Court said.

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