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Missouri House Dems push wide-ranging ethics bill

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Nov. 27, 2012 - Missouri House Democrats have unveiled a wide-ranging ethics and campaign finance proposal, a package that includes re-instituting campaign contribution limits and curbing lobbyist gifts.

The challenge for Democrats is selling the idea to Missouri Republicans, who will hold a commanding 110-53 member edge when the state House goes back into session in January.

State Rep. Kevin McManus’ proposed legislation, rolled out Tuesday, incorporates facets of an ethics bill signed into law in 2010, including a provision granting power to the Missouri Ethics Commission to initiate investigations and restricting transfers between campaign committees.

The Missouri Supreme Court struck down those provisions earlier this year on procedural grounds.

The bill also would prompt certain nonprofit organizations involved in political activity to disclose their donors, something that Republican lawmakers plan on introducing next year. Other provisions of McManus' bill include:

  • Making it a crime to conceal deliberately the source of campaign contributions.
  • Prohibiting campaign contributions from being invested in anything other than interest-bearing checking or savings accounts. That’s a response to House Speaker Steve Tilley’s use of campaign funds to purchase shares in a local bank.
  • Barring lawmakers, their spouses or dependent children from accepting more than $1,000 a calendar year in lobbyist meals, entertainment or travel.
  • Prohibiting lawmakers from working as paid political consultants while in office.
  • Imposing a waiting period on former lawmakers lobbying the General Assembly after leaving office. 

McManus’ legislation would also impose donor caps on campaign contributions for General Assembly and statewide candidates at $5,000 per election.
That’s likely to face stiff resistance from the GOP-controlled chambers, especially since Republicans - and a handful of Democrats - led the effort to get rid of the state's donation limits in 2008.

In an interview, McManus, D-Kansas City, said whether campaign contribution limits make any headway is up to Republican leaders such as House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka.

“I know that there are House Republicans who almost uniformly view everything in this as favorable. And I know there are a few people very outspoken against limits,” McManus said. “And they’re outspoken about it for a reason: They’re passionate about it because they’re benefiting from it. And that’s hard to combat.”

McManus added that if campaign contribution limits aren't implemented legislatively, backers would attempt to re-enact them through the initiative petition process. That’s the effort the Missouri Democratic Party initially proposed in 2011, but which was not carried out.

“Limits have been very, very popular with the public,” said McManus, noting that a ballot item on the issue passed overwhelmingly in the early 1990s. “If we can’t get it done in the legislative process, we’ll have to look at other ways. And the initiative petition process is, I think, a very valuable alternative.”

One of the subplots of the 2012 election cycle was how third-party political action committees – widely-known as SuperPACs – easily maneuvered around federal limits on donations for congressional offices and for president.

Supporters of the successful effort to eliminate Missouri’s old campaign contribution limits often argued that the restrictions could be circumvented by political action committees and legislative campaign committees.

McManus compared the situation to the "Whack-a-Mole" arcade game.

“You’ve got to be resilient about attacking that issue,” McManus said. “You know, if we close down the 501(c)(4) loophole, there will be another loophole created. But we’ll deal with that when we get there. And this bill does prohibit PAC to PAC contributions. But there’s always going to be someone looking to funnel (money) some other way. But I think all we can do is be vigilant about it and continue to address it.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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