This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: A Board of Aldermen bill limiting campaign contributions for St. Louis offices received praise – and attracted tough questions – during Monday's committee hearing.
While the bill's chief sponsor said that he plans to tweak the bill’s language, he added that he would keep pushing the measure through the process.
Alderman Scott Ogilvie’s bill would, among other things, cap contributions at $10,000 an election cycle for citywide offices like mayor, comptroller and president of the Board of Aldermen. It would also impose a $3,000 limit for aldermanic candidates.
The Missouri General Assembly removed campaign finance limits in 2008. But since the state constitution gives St. Louis its own Election Board, the city gets more leeway in setting its own campaign finance restrictions.
The city already restricts candidates from taking contributions from gaming interests. And last year, an ordinance was passed to require politically active nonprofits involved in city contests to disclose their donors.
Ogilvie, I-24th Ward, noted during a hearing of the aldermanic Legislation Committee that the bill aimed at reducing the influence of “mega-donors” in city elections. He also noted that even though the state removed campaign finance limits in 2008, Kansas City implemented them for municipal offices in 2010.
Olgilvie said that if the state’s two biggest cities had campaign finance limits, it may compel the state legislature to take action and reinstitute state caps.
“When I talk to people… most of them are surprised and fairly appalled that there are absolutely no limits on individual contributions during an election in the city,” Ogilvie said.
“You want to set reasonable limits that don’t encourage people to skirt the rules, (that) allow you to raise a sufficient amount of money – but also prevent what I would call ‘mega-donors’ from really dominating the conversation,” he added. “So then every candidate could appeal to a broad base of voters and contributors.”
Some of Ogilvie's fellow aldermen praised the proposal. Alderman Shane Cohn, D-25th Ward, said he thought Ogilvie’s bill was “the right thing to do.”
“I do agree there is no perfect solution to this even at a state or federal level,” said Cohn, a co-sponsor of Ogilvie’s bill. “You have the [Citizens United Supreme Court decision] that has just created a whole massive cash influx into our elections at all levels, particularly at a federal level with these Super PACs.
“But I do think it’s incumbent upon us as a city at least to act in a reasonable and measured manner to address the concerns of many people,” he added.
Alderman Joe Roddy, D-17th Ward, suggested that the limits in Ogilvie’s bill could be lowered even more.
“These are high limits,” Roddy said. “I could see us cutting these things in half and still not have much problems complying with these things."
And at least one member of the public -- Richard von Glahn – said he thought the amounts of money thrown around in city elections “are corrosive to the idea of democracy.”
“I’m just concerned that not every person in the city feels like they have an equal say in how our city is run,” von Glahn said.
'County office' loophole?
Even before discussion began, Ogilvie said more work was needed to refine the language delineating the roles and responsibilities of a board examining contribution disclosure reports. So the committee held off on voting on the bill.
But Ogilvie noted that the Missouri Ethics Commission told him that the city can’t regulate contributions for “county” offices,” such as the recorder of deeds or collector of revenue, which are technically under state control.
Some committee members questioned whether candidates could collect unlimited donations for “county” offices and then use those funds to run for mayor, aldermanic president or comptroller.
“I’m a co-sponsor on this and I think having limits on all elections would be the best idea,” said Alderwoman Lyda Krewson, D-28th Ward. “I do see as one of the loopholes... that if someone wanted to set up a committee and say they were running for recorder of deeds, sheriff or treasurer… and collect a lot of money into that committee. And then they could decide one day, ‘Oh, instead I’m going to run for mayor.”
For instance, Collector of Revenue Greg F.X. Daly has over $500,000 of cash on hand. And if Ogilvie’s bill passed, it’s possible he could scoop up more donations in excess of $10,000 and eventually use that money to run for mayor.
“They would have raised money above the limit and spend it in the race that has limits,” she added. “That doesn’t keep me from supporting this bill because I can’t see any way around that. I think that’d be a pretty unethical thing to do. But I do think it is a loophole and I don’t think we can fix it.”
Alderman Tom Villa – a former member of the Missouri House – said it’s also possible for a sitting state lawmaker to raise unlimited amounts of money and use those funds to run for a city-based office.
And while Alderman Jeffery Boyd, D-22nd Ward, said that the bill “makes a good policy statement," he added, among other things, that it could create an inequitable campaign finance system.
“To me it’s like 'all or nothing,' ” Boyd said. “Having other city officeholders getting unlimited contributions, I mean I’ll go along with this. But it doesn’t seem – I don’t want to say fair, because life isn’t fair. But if we’re going to have limits, then the limits should apply to everybody who represents a constituency in the city of St. Louis, not exceptions for certain people.”
Back to work
For his part, Ogilvie said after the meeting that he’d be “happy to include” county offices in his bill. But, he added, “they’re not under our jurisdiction, so we can’t do it.”
“This is not a perfect solution. And I readily admit that it’s not a perfect solution,” Ogilvie said. “We can only regulate these local offices. That’s the extent of what we can do.”
But realistically, Ogilvie said, most competitive aldermanic campaigns cost between $10,000 and $15,000 -- especially since they typically rely on direct mail and door-to-door activity. Roddy suggested it's rare for aldermanic candidates to get $1,000 donations, let alone $3,000 contributions.
Ogilvie also observed, "Somebody running for the office of mayor is going to be able to raise a substantial amount of money no matter what."
"That’s why I don’t intend to set the limits so low that people can’t raise enough money to run a campaign,” he added.
Asked about the bill's chances, Ogilvie said, “They’re pretty good – but you never know.” He also said a lot of the questioning from his fellow aldermen suggested that “we’re in kind of a bad environment statewide and federally with campaign finance.”
“Some of that two-tiered system existed when there were state limits because the limits were different for various offices,” Ogilvie said. “So if you were going from one office with a higher limit and running for another office with a lower limit, you already potentially had a head start. I mean, I would much prefer that the Missouri legislature step in and set some reasonable limits across the board. That’s a better system. Until we have that system, it’s still a good idea to do what we can, really to show some leadership and show that people care.”
St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay told the Beacon earlier that while he generally supports the concept of campaign finance limits, he planned to wait to see the final form of Ogilvie’s bill before expressing an opinion.
Ogilvie said he isn't surprised.
“If I was the mayor, and we passed a bill that said the limit’s $50, I wouldn’t sign it,” Ogilvie said. “So I understand the mayor probably wants to wait and see what the numbers actually are in the bill before taking a position on it and making sure it’s reasonable.”