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Lawsuit challenges new campaign finance law in Missouri

Democrat James Trout, who plans to run again for the 91st District House seat, after losing by only 249 votes in November (campaign photo)


Jefferson City, MO – Missouri's new campaign finance law is being challenged in court.

A law that took effect this week repeals the individual campaign contribution limits. But another part that takes effect today (Wednesday) prohibits any contributions to candidates for the Legislature or statewide office while lawmakers are in session.

The lawsuit contends the fundraising blackout violates free speech protections. It was filed by Democrat James Trout, who lost a close bid in November to oust state representative Kathlyn Fares, of Webster Groves.

A similar Missouri law was struck down by a federal judge in 1996 for infringing on free-speech rights.

The latest lawsuit also seeks a temporary restraining order or injunction against the entire bill in which the fundraising blackout was included. That legislation also abolished Missouri's individual campaign contribution limits, effective Jan. 1. It prohibited certain people from running for office and imposed new Ethics Commission reporting requirements on lobbyists.

The lawsuit cites a Missouri constitutional requirement that a bill have no more than one subject clearly expressed in its title and a prohibition against lawmakers changing the original purpose of a bill.

Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan set a noon Friday hearing to consider the request for a temporary restraining order.

The lawsuit says Trout intends to be a candidate again in 2008 and would like to contribute to other candidates and spend his own money on his own campaign during the law's blackout period.

Trout said the repeal of contribution limits, combined with the 4 1/2-month fundraising blackout, makes it easier for incumbents to gain a fundraising advantage over their challengers. It also favors wealthy special interests, he said.

"This law is a lopsided charade whose intention, I think, is seriously just to keep a supermajority entrenched," Trout, of Webster Groves, said in a telephone interview. "It certainly weights the election in favor of those who already hold office."

House Majority Leader Tom Dempsey (R-St. Charles) who sponsored the bill, said he was confident the courts would turn back claims that the legislation was too broad or had changed too dramatically from its original purpose. Dempsey said he believed the circumstances of the fundraising blackout also were different from the ban that was previously struck down.

In 1994, Missourians voted by a margin of nearly 3-1 to limit contributions to House, Senate and statewide candidates. When that measure was tossed out in court, higher limits legislators had passed automatically kicked in and were ultimately upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The bill passed last year by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Matt Blunt repealed those individual campaign contribution limits. It also instituted new bans on cash contributions to candidates from political parties and on any contributions to candidates for the Legislature or a statewide office during the regular legislative session, which this year runs from Jan. 3 through May 18.

Attorney General Jay Nixon, whose office now must defend the law, had urged Blunt to veto the legislation, calling it "a radical departure from the will of the people."

Dempsey said the abolishment of contribution limits was intended to halt the confusing money transfers that had been used to circumvent the limits and which obscured the original source of the money.

A 1994 law also had barred candidates for the Legislature or statewide office from accepting campaign contributions during the legislative session. But U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh struck down that law in 1996, ruling it infringed on free-speech and free-association rights. He said it could have prevented a candidate from raising enough money to mount an effective campaign.

Dempsey described the latest ban on legislative session contributions as a good-government provision. "There are always people who want to draw the line between how a contribution impacts a decision that's made in the Legislature," Dempsey said.

"The reason for the ban on giving during session is to remove that perception."

The lawsuit also seeks to strike down a provision of the law disqualifying any candidate who is delinquent on property taxes for his or her home or for a state-contracted license office. The lawsuit claims that violates the constitution's equal protection clause because the law does not disqualify those late on taxes for their farms, apartment buildings or other corporations.

Under Missouri's previous law, contributors to candidates for Missouri statewide offices were limited to giving $1,275 per election. The limit was $650 for state Senate candidates and $325 for state House candidates. Those limits are now gone.

Political party committees previously could give candidates $12,750 each in cash and in-kind donations per election for statewide offices, $6,400 for senators and $3,200 for representatives. The new law bars direct party contributions but allows unlimited in-kind expenditures.


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