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Nixon calls for return of campaign donation limits, and limits on legislators' activities

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 30, 2009 - Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has joined in the parade in state officials who are calling for various types of "ethics reform'' in the wake of recent controversies, arrests and convictions involving the public or personal antics of some of their own.

In a letter sent to legislators, and underscored in a press conference call Wednesday morning, Nixon laid out four proposed actions that he said were key, if the Legislature was to regain the public trust:

--1) Restoring campaign donation limits, which the Legislature tossed out two years ago. Nixon, who had been a champion of the limits since close to three-quarters of Missouri voters approved them in 1994, said getting rid of the limits has not provided the "transparency'' that no-limit advocates had promised.

Instead, he said, lack of limits is leading to huge individual donations -- he didn't mention any names or amounts -- and discouraging small donors who may feel their $10 or $20 contributions are meaningless.

--2) Barring the practice of transferring money between campaign committees, in an apparent attempt to hide the original source of the money. Nixon also criticized a related practice, when donation limits were in effect, of some major donors -- most notably wealthy financier Rex Sinquefield -- who had created dozens of committees, which then each gave donations to a candidate.

--3) Barring legislators from serving as political consultants while they are in office. Nixon said it was "hard to instill the public's confidence ... when you allow legislators to hire each other.'' He also blasted what he characterized as "legislators being hired off the floor'' by various private firms or groups.

--4) Barring legislators from immediately working as lobbyists after leaving office, and instead requiring them to wait an unspecified amount of time. Nixon said he shared the public's concern about "an unregulated revolving door." He said a moratorium of anywhere from six months to two years might be appropriate before legislators could work as lobbyists.

Nixon, a Democrat, said he was optimistic that the Republican-controlled Legislature was committed to taking action during the coming session, even though it's during an election year. He counted at least 15 legislators who already have introduced or proposed various types of ethics packages.

"An election year is the time to do this, when the public will be watching more closely,'' the governor said.

But, underscoring the heightened political tensions, the state GOP swiftly fired back by accusing Nixon of fostering "culture of corruption'' within his own office. In a release, party executive director Lloyd Smith cited various current or former Nixon staffers who have come under fire for their part in various controversies or misdeeds.

“If Jay Nixon wants to get serious about ethics reform, he first needs to come clean about his own ethics problems that have marred his first year in office,” Smith said.

Nixon, while not referring to Smith's jabs, said he was concerned about the public perception of politicians run amuck.

In recent months, three legislators -- all Democrats -- have pleaded guilty to federal offenses in connection with their public service, and rumors are rampant that more convictions are afoot. Among the disgraced trio is former state Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, who is headed to federal prison next week after pleading guilty to charges in connection with illegal campaign activities during his 2004 bid for Congress.

Meanwhile, former state House Speaker Rod Jetton, a Republican, has been arrested on assault charges in connection with a sexual encounter.

Nixon didn't mention any names.

Instead, he said in his remarks:

“Missourians expect and deserve a government that is transparent, accountable and responsive. Meaningful ethics reform will help make sure that each of us who holds the public trust lives up to that clear standard.

"That’s why we must enact strict campaign contribution limits, eliminate shady committee-to-committee transfers, and prohibit officeholders from working as paid political consultants and lobbyists. I look forward to working with a bipartisan coalition to turn these key pillars into strong, comprehensive ethics reform that is worthy of the people of the Show-Me State.”

UPDATE: State Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who recently laid out his own ethics proposals, offered a measured response to those proposed by the governor. Shields likes some of Nixon's proposals -- especially the restrictions on campaign committee transfers -- but he opposes the restoration of donation limits.

"...The governor says he supports transparency, but by reinstating contribution limits the old ways of legal money laundering would again take effect," Shields said.

"With caps, the system was plagued because no one knew where all that money was coming from. Bringing transparency to campaign finances is why Republicans and Democrats voted together to remove the limits.

"Today, contributions are made directly to specific candidates and campaigns, rather than being funneled through campaign committees to avoid transparency and limits. Now, candidates are held accountable by the public, their opponents and the media when they accept any contribution, no matter the size, because it must be made to them directly.

"We have already given voters and the media the most important tool in helping them determine the true character of a candidate. We have given them transparency, and put the public's right to know, in a timely manner, at the forefront of campaign finance in Missouri."

Jo Mannies has been covering Missouri politics and government for almost four decades, much of that time as a reporter and columnist at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She was the first woman to cover St. Louis City Hall, was the newspaper’s second woman sportswriter in its history, and spent four years in the Post-Dispatch Washington Bureau. She joined the St. Louis Beacon in 2009. She has won several local, regional and national awards, and has covered every president since Jimmy Carter. She scared fellow first-graders in the late 1950s when she showed them how close Alaska was to Russia and met Richard M. Nixon when she was in high school. She graduated from Valparaiso University in northwest Indiana, and was the daughter of a high school basketball coach. She is married and has two grown children, both lawyers. She’s a history and movie buff, cultivates a massive flower garden, and bakes banana bread regularly for her colleagues.

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