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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the trail: Alderman wants to limit campaign donations for city candidates

Scott Ogilvie
Provided by Mr. Ogilvie | 2013

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 28, 2013: If there’s one message that Alderman Scott Ogilvie wants to deliver with his bill restricting campaign contributions to city of St. Louis candidates, it’s that Missouri’s situation is not the norm.

From a practical standpoint, Ogilvie is correct. Missouri is one of only four states without contribution limits, a distinction that’s spurred much discussion  -- and, in some cases, derision – over the past few years.

And while primarily Democratic state lawmakers have pushed for limits since they were done away with in 2008, there’s been little action on a state level. Gov. Jay Nixon’s annual calls for donation limits have been routinely ignored, while individuals, corporations and interest groups have given huge donations to candidates.

“That’s not a normal situation, I think that’s what people need to understand,” Ogilvie said in a telephone interview with the Beacon. “There are limits everywhere. There’s federal limits. There’s state limits. There’s local limits.”

“So the fact that you can give an unlimited amount of money to any office in St. Louis is just a very unusual, bizarre situation,” he added. “So the point of the bill is to bring us back into a sort of more normal situation with reasonable limits so we can raise enough money to campaign and communicate with voters.”

Ogilvie’s bill – introduced in the Board of Aldermen earlier this month – would, among other things, cap contributions at $10,000 per 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.

Ogilvie said that campaign contributions don’t always determine who wins elections, but they can dictate what city policymakers talk about.

“Peabody Energy, for instance, has become a major donor in St. Louis politics recently. And I don’t think that’s an accident,” he said. “Because it’s a PR move to sort of protect them a little bit against the bad PR they’ve had with their… pension issues. And that’s just a current example. But there could be all kinds of examples where people in office are hesitant to bring up issues because they feel the optics happen to be bad for a local company.”

While imposing contribution limits on a municipal level may seem unusual, Kansas City passed an ordinance doing just that in 2010. Since the city of St. Louis has its own election board, it generally gets more leeway in setting campaign finance restrictions.

Kansas City, Ogilvie said, passed campaign contribution limits because they feared that “there were going to be, in particular, mayoral candidates who might run with nothing more than a few mega donors or rich backers behind them.”

“I spoke to a lot of people in office and a lot of people who administrate this in Kansas City. And the consensus with everybody I spoke to is the limits in Kansas City have worked,” Ogilvie said. “They were not too onerous. They were not too restricting. But they did force candidate to curate a broad base of donors, rather than rely on just a handful of people to fund their campaign.”

Ogilvie’s bill is still relatively early in the legislative process. But he notes it has several co-sponsors – including Alderman Stephen Conway, D-8th Ward, and Alderwoman Christine Ingrassia, D-6th Ward. A campaign spokesman for Mayor Francis Slay didn’t return a call asking for his take on the bill.

But Ogilvie noted that it would be more advantageous – and equitable – to pass his bill sooner rather than later.

“It’s important to do this now right after a mayoral election -- this is something you couldn’t do a year before a mayoral election,” he said. “Because you’re likely going to have one person way out in front in the fundraising already. And then you’re restricting any challenger from being able to compete at that point.”

Call to action?

Beyond bringing more attention to Missouri’s unlimited contribution system, Ogilvie is hoping that his legislation will send a “message to Jefferson City that the current rules are really completely inadequate and that they need to take a much closer look at statewide limits.”

If that past is any indication, state lawmakers aren’t likely to be terribly receptive. GOP legislators spearheaded the end to campaign finance limits in 2008, although the move did have support from a few Democrats – including then-state Sen. Chris Koster, D-Harrisonville. Since that year, the number of GOP legislators is at record levels – which is perhaps why House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, earlier this year called contribution limits “a non-starter.”

Those words proved prophetic. This year, bills from both Republican and Democratic lawmakers limiting campaign contributions went nowhere. And an attempt to attach an amendment capping contributions to an ethics bill didn’t get a vote.

At an end-of-session news conference, Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, said that Missouri is the “only state with the trifecta of no limits on lobbyist gifts, no limits on campaign donations and no limits on the revolving door for legislators who want to come back in and lobby.”

“We are the least regulated state in the country when it comes to campaign ethics and lobbyist ethics – and we need to change that,” Sifton said.

Gov. Jay Nixon told reporters earlier this month that may follow through with his promise to support a ballot initiative to reinstate contribution limits. But that effort would, perhaps ironically, require a lot of money in order to make it to a public vote.

Opponents have long contended that doing away with campaign donation limits incentivizes donors to give more directly to candidates – as opposed to shuttling money to outside groups. Before contribution limits were abolished, big donors regularly contributed sizable amounts of money to candidates through political party committees or a web of political action committees.

And on the federal level, contribution limits have been severely compromised – if not rendered useless – by the emergence of Super PACs and politically active non-profits. While third party groups and non-profits are utilized on a state level in Missouri, it's possible they could be used even more if contribution limits come back.

Asked whether scrapping limits would incentivize or empower donors to give to outside groups, Sifton replied “we had campaign finance limits on the books for years in this state and it worked well.” And Ogilvie added that it was unlikely that outside groups – like Super PACs or 501(c)(4)s – would become more prevalent if the city instituted donation limits.

“The stakes are really not high enough and the number of people that are covered are not big enough for any of these Super PACs to pay any attention,” Ogilvie said. “Municipal level government is much more about service delivery than it’s about ideology, which is where a lot of the Super PACs are operating.”

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

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