Federal judge: Parts of Missouri’s campaign finance law unconstitutional; $2,600 donor limit stays | St. Louis Public Radio

Federal judge: Parts of Missouri’s campaign finance law unconstitutional; $2,600 donor limit stays

May 5, 2017

Parts of Missouri’s new campaign finance law is unconstitutional, but the $2,600 individual donor limit will stick, according to a ruling issued Friday by Senior District Judge Ortrie Smith of the Western District of Missouri.

But in striking down a provision in the law that banned certain committee-to-committee transfers, it’s opened up the ability to raise an unlimited amount of money through a local political action committee and transfer that cash to a different PAC. In effect, that will make campaign money harder to track and makes it easier for candidates to get around the individual donor limit.

The Missouri Ethics Commission referred calls to Attorney General Josh Hawley, who didn't immediately return a request for comment on whether he'd appeal the ruling.

Todd Graves, one of the chief lawyers challenging the amendment and chairman of the Missouri Republican Party, predicted Friday that more federal and state lawsuits will soon be filed over Amendment 2. 

Amendment 2 has been the target of lawsuits by activists in both parties since it was approved Nov. 8 by almost 70 percent of voters. Donations have been limited to $2,600 per donor per election for all statewide candidates and officeholders, Missouri legislators and elected judges.

“A constitutional amendment is a whole package. And when it’s been piecemealed so it is just swiss cheese, there are legitimate questions as to whether the citizens would have voted for that if they had an opportunity," Graves told St. Louis Public Radio, which appeared to be the first media outlet to report the ruling.

Graves, the former U.S. Attorney for Missouri’s Western District, emphasized that he was involved in the court fight over Amendment 2 before he took on that political post.

Chuck Hatfield, another key lawyer in the case, said the ruling ends Amendment 2's ban on money transfers between political action committees. But he emphasized that candidate committees still cannot transfer money to other candidates or PACs.

Essentially, he said, candidate committees cannot donate to other candidates, which had been allowed for decades.

"Banks were really blocked out of the political process altogether. They couldn’t give directly and couldn’t give to a PAC that then could give," said Hatfield. He represented banks that were barred by Amendment 2 from giving any money to candidates or PACs. "What we fixed was that the banks now can support their PAC just like every industry can.”

The law's limits don’t affect those seeking or holding local offices, which is why it didn’t affect this spring’s contest for a new St. Louis mayor. Donations to political parties are capped at $25,000 per election. 

Several lawsuits that were combined challenged different aspects of the amendment, notably who can donate and who cannot. For example, Amendment 2 has barred direct donations from corporations and labor unions, but most are allowed to set up PACs that then could contribute to candidates.

The Missouri Democratic Party said in a statement that Hawley should "honor the will of the voters and take immediate legal action to restore these campaign finance rules."

Missouri had lower donation limits from 1995 to 2008, when the state’s General Assembly repealed them. At that point, donation limits ranged from $325 to $1,350 per candidate per election, depending on the office sought, and applied to all offices — from local to statewide.

Politicians in both parties have lamented the loss of lower limits, including state Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, who filed a bill this session to force more disclosure of donors who give to outside political groups. In 2008, he voted to repeal the limits, but said seven years later that, “If somebody gives you a big check … you are going to have a certain benevolent feeling toward them.”

Rachel Lippmann and Jason Rosenbaum contributed.

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