St. Louis Business Journal – Thursday, January 14, 2014
JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – In the final quarter of 2013, Missouri lawmakers and political action committees received nearly $8.5 million in contributions of more than $5,000.
Now, a push is growing in Jefferson City to ban those as part of a larger effort to limit the influence of money on politics in Missouri, the only state in the U.S. where both unlimited lobbyist gifts and unlimited campaign contributions are allowed.
Democratic Secretary of State Jason Kander and state Rep. Kevin McManus, D-Kansas City, on Tuesday announced a sweeping ethics and campaign finance package that would implement an all-out ban on lobbyist gifts, enact strict campaign contribution limits and aim to strengthen the Missouri Ethics Commission’s enforcement abilities.
“We could go from the worst ethics laws in the country to the best,” Kander said. “Our proposal is not a compromise. This is a solution to a very serious problem.”
Corporate political action committees (PACs) and regional businessmen are often some of the largest givers to many members in election years. For example, in the last quarter, ahead of the 2014 cycle, Ameren Missouri placed $125,000 in its PAC, and Laclede Gas placed $50,000 in its PAC.
The McManus-Kander package would not affect how much a corporation or individual can give to a PAC, but would place contribution limits on how much that PAC could give to individual candidates. Would-be big-givers would be limited in how much they could give to an individual candidate.
Contributions to statewide officials – like Roy Pfautch’s $20,000 to State Auditor Tom Schweich in October or Sam Fox’s $25,000 to Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder – would be capped at $2,600 a year, similar to the caps on contributions to U.S. Senate candidates already in place.
The bill takes inspiration from legislation filed by Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, which would also cap contributions to state senators at $1,000 per election cycle and state representatives at $500 per election cycle.
James McDonnell and August Busch III both contributed $15,000 to the Missouri Republican Party last quarter. Their contributions would fall well within the annual limit of $32,400 proposed by the McManus-Kander proposal.
According to St. Louis Public Radio’s Lobbying Missouri project, Missouri lawmakers have received nearly $1.9 million in lobbyist gifts over the past 24 months. Ameren has spent more than $95,000 followed by the Missouri Hospital Association (leading the charge for Medicaid expansion last session), which spent $85,428.
The gift category can cover a number of things – a lunch, a beverage, a ticket to a sporting event or even a trip. They are already reported monthly. Nasheed and Sen. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis County, have proposed bills that would ban them entirely, and the McManus-Kander bill would too.
In addition, the bill pulls ideas from individual parts filed by state Sens. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, and John Lamping, R-St. Louis, which would institute a so-called “cooling off” period, or a time when a lawmaker who’s just left the legislature cannot lobby. The bill suggests a three-year period (Lager has called for a two-year window.). Additionally, the McManus-Kander bill calls for a one-year period, when a lawmaker who’s left the General Assembly cannot consult political campaigns.
The bill also aims to strengthen the Missouri Ethics Commission (the organization tasked with enforcing election and ethics rules) by making it a class D felony to obstruct an ethics investigation, providing whistle-blowers with a financial reward for their cooperation, requiring all paid political consultants to register with the commission and using funds received through fines to establish the Missouri Ethics Commission Enforcement Fund.
“We believe those who break the law should pay for a better ethics commission,” Kander said.
Piecemeal approach more likely
The chances for such a sweeping package are dim in a Republican-controlled General Assembly. House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, a recipient of contributions and lobbyist gifts, said he was skeptical of capping campaign contribution limits.
“I view it as a First Amendment issue, and I think that has to be considered,” he said during a recent interview. “I’m not closing the door on it. That’s just my mind frame.”
Jones was much more dismissive of limiting lobbyist gifts.
“I think it is more of something that honestly the media gets more fascinated with than the common person,” he said. “I don’t think anybody believes that a legislator is influenced in one way or another by a cup of coffee or a hamburger or a meal being purchased. I think that to put the issue to bed and to rest forever, we’ll probably have to consider that, but I don’t know where it’s going to go.”
For his part, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, has consistently called for strict campaign contribution limits since ones approved by voters in 1994 were overturned by the General Assembly and Gov. Matt Blunt in 2008.