Lawmakers want to place a firewall between candidates and political action committees | St. Louis Public Radio

Lawmakers want to place a firewall between candidates and political action committees

Jan 26, 2018

Missouri’s voter-approved contribution limits curbed the amount of money that some candidates could take from a political donor. What it didn’t do is stop a candidate from encouraging big contributors to send money to political action committees that could help their electoral pursuits.

That’s the upshot from a Missouri Ethics Commission opinion. Among other things, it says nothing in the contribution limits (known as Amendment 2) bars a candidate from fundraising on a PAC’s behalf. As long as the third-party group isn’t operating as “a second candidate” committee, a state-based candidate can tell donors to send huge amounts of money to a PAC that may run ads support their candidacy — or slamming their opponents.

For Rep. Gina Mitten, this opinion, which draws from prior rulings in the 1990s and 2000s, amounts to a huge setback for the state’s nascent donation limits. With the number of PACs growing since Amendment 2’s adoption, Mitten said lawmakers should make it more difficult for candidates to encourage lots of money to flow to third-party groups. 

State Rep. Gina Mitten, D-Richmond Heights, said lawmakers should focus on tightening laws restricting coordination between candidates and political action committees.
Credit File photo I Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio

“It’s another end-around and it removes transparency. So I think the fix to that is to tie up the coordination laws on both sides of that,” said Mitten during a December appearance on the Politically Speaking podcast. “I don’t think … anybody who has a candidate committee should ever be allowed to direct funding to any other continuing PAC under any circumstances.”

Missouri’s campaign finance statutes also allow candidates to directly steer money to politically-active nonprofits, which have been a prime topic of discussion in Missouri politics over the past year. Candidates can send campaign contributions to “any charitable, fraternal or civic organizations” as long as that person or person’s family doesn’t benefit financially. That would include a 501(c)(4), which can get involved in politics without revealing donors or how money is spent. 

This setup could allow a municipal or county candidate, who under Amendment 2 can accept donations of unlimited size, to raise a large amount of money and ship it to a 501(c)(4) that could help a pursuit of a state-based office. 

“That, to me, is an easy fix, to where you could limit [candidate donations] to 501(c)(3), which doesn’t have the ability to do that political stuff,” Mitten said, referring to another kind of charitable organization that’s restricted from getting involved in elections.

No easy fix

But doing what Mitten wants may be easier said than done. 

Members of the Missouri Senate work through the final day of the General Assembly's legislative session in 2017.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio

For one thing, there doesn’t appear to be much appetite among Republicans who control the General Assembly to tighten campaign finance coordination laws. Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, said it may be logistically difficult to accomplish.

“I think our system of coordination and being able to raise money for a leadership PAC type of entity, they can do that a federal level,” Rowden said late last year. “I think you’d have a hard time moving past that.”

Robert Maguire of the Center for Responsive Politics echoed Rowden’s sentiments. Even if states such as Missouri restricted political candidates from encouraging donations to go to outside groups, Maguire said those proposals would likely face legal challenges.

“Putting that firewall in place will require basically limiting someone’s free speech rights,” Maguire said. “Because the way this usually works is that somebody close to the candidate themselves will run one of these groups. Whether it’s a family friend or a former staffer or top aide or something like that. So any rules that try to strengthen coordination are always going to try to go at that fact — the reason we know this is effective coordination is the people running these groups are people that have been close to the candidate for decades.”

Maguire said the expansive use of outside groups in politics is a result of the Citizens United decision, which struck down federal laws restricting third party groups from running independent expenditures in support or opposition to candidates.

“This is what we’ve been seeing pretty much every year since Citizens United,” Maguire said. “The whole premise of the decision is that you can’t limit the amount of money going into these groups, because they’re operating independently of the candidate. But the truth is they’re not actually operating independently. There are roundabout ways to coordinate that are actually quite easy to use.

“And so effectively, a lot of these outside groups just end up being extensions of the campaign that can raise unlimited amounts of money,” he added.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum