As the November Congressional and Presidential elections are just around the corner, Missouri, a key swing state, has come under the microscope for the state’s campaign finance laws, or lack thereof. In 2010, Missouri passed Senate Bill 844 to establish campaign finance restrictions on donations in state and congressional races. The law required that an officeholder/candidate report contributions over $500 within 48 hours of receipt and restricted campaign finance committees from contributing money to another committee. However, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the law in February of this year, holding the statute violated a section of the state’s constitution “prohibiting legislators from amending a bill to change its original purpose.” Senate Bill 844 was initially proposed to address administrative contracting issues in statewide elections, but several amendments were added to address looming campaign finance concerns. This decision has left Missouri campaign donations relatively unchecked and the State’s campaign ethics laws “the most lax in the country.”
Currently Missouri Campaign Finance Law (§ 130.031) does not limit individual, state party, Political Action Committee, corporate, or union contributions to political candidates. Although there are no limits on contributions, candidates are required to report donations of more than $500 or a single contribution of more than $250 to the Missouri Ethics Commission. Following the February ruling, Missouri lawmakers sought to institute reform in time for the November elections. Representatives and senators unsuccessfully proposed replacement bills that tried to cap contributions for candidates at $5,000 per donor and limit lobbyists’ gifts to $1,000 each year. The lack of campaign donation oversight has raised concerns that elections may be tarnished by corruption and financial influence given the ability of lobbyists to give to campaigns or elected officials with little or no restrictions. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures Missouri is one of four states with no limits on contributions and the only state without limits on what lobbyists can donate. The Missouri legislature’s failure to pass a campaign finance reform bill highlights the sharp divide in the State on this issue.
In March of this year, Rep. Tishaura Jones proposed a replacement bill (H.B. 1939) that would “would impose a $5,000 individual campaign contribution limit for statewide candidates and legislative candidates, would prohibit lawmakers or their spouses or their dependent children from accepting more than $1,000 in lobbyist expenditures per calendar year, and grant the Missouri Ethics Commission greater authority including the power to initiate investigations.” Former Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley opposed the bill. Tilley, who is a vocal enemy of campaign finance limits, said “he does not support campaign contribution caps because they can make the process less transparent.” If caps were in place, Tilley believes “people would give to committees and committees would give to other people and it [is] hard to track the money.” In addition, Tilley and other opponents believe contribution caps do not slow the flow of money into campaigns as individuals utilize other methods to skirt the limits such as donating through super PACs. Proponents of contribution caps disagree with Tilley’s transparency argument. Rep. Jason Kander, who advocates for campaign finance reform, believes the current political environment “puts the state in a position prime for corruption” because lobbyists and special interests are able to supply unlimited gifts and donations.
Despite the disagreements over this issue one thing is clear: individuals, lobbyists and special interest groups are taking advantage of the situation. The Missouri secretary of state race between Rep. Kander (D) and acting state House Speaker Shane Schoeller (R) illustrates the dangers of unrestricted campaign contributions. Schoeller has received two large-scale donations ($150,000 and $250,000) from Rex Sinquefield, who is a St. Louis businessman trying “to bankroll a successful ballot initiative banning new local income taxes in Missouri.” This is not the first time Sinquefield has spent large sums of money to promote his individual agenda. In 2010, Sinquefield spent $11.3 million to support a successful ballot initiative to ban new local income taxes in Missouri. In addition, according to the Missouri Ethics Commission in 2012 Sinquefield has donated over $1.2 million to Let Voters Decide, which is a Missouri Political Action Committee that supports getting rid of the state’s income tax. Sinquefield’s donations in this race raise red flags for proponents of campaign finance reform because of the secretary of state’s office’s close ties to administering the referendum process.
The secretary of state race highlights the need to revisit campaign finance reform in Missouri. Even though Missouri’s laws require disclosure of donations, the concern is the unlimited ability of an individual, lobbyist, or political group to dictate the state’s policies through large financial donations. Although there are sharp disagreements on what type of law should be in place, the biggest area of concern is these uncapped large-scale donations. The facts that Missouri is one of four states that places no restrictions on the amount of donations and the only state that places no restrictions on lobbyists’ donations are concerns shared by individuals on both sides of the aisle and that need to be addressed.