For roughly a decade, the Democratic gubernatorial nominee was a firm opponent of campaign donation limits. When he voted to get rid of contribution curbs as a Republican state senator in 2006 and a Democratic state senator in 2008, he believed that an unlimited system would give Missourians a better sense of where money came from and where it was going.
But Chris Koster abandoned his long-standing opposition to donation limits earlier this year and threw his support behind a proposed constitutional amendment that limits contributions to $2,600 for state-based offices. He says that the current system where million-dollar donations are relatively commonplace is completely out of control.
“What we do know is that transparency is not occurring,” Koster said. “And that contributions have gotten massively larger. And they are still hidden. And so, it’s clear that regular people in the state feel increasingly disconnected from their political system. And it seems to me that this can’t go on or shouldn’t go on at least.”
There’s a good chance that Missouri’s unlimited system may indeed be coming to an end. The proposal, Amendment 2, has little organized opposition. And a prior ballot initiative in the 1990s that capped political donations passed without much trouble.
But even if the measure passes and survives an expected court fight, opponents of the proposal say it may not actually stem the flow of money into Missouri politics. Instead, they contend it may steer a deluge of cash into other types of committees that wouldn’t be affected by the amendment.
Missouri is one of a handful of states without limits on campaign donations. Many Democratic legislators have tried — and failed — to reverse that designation. Ever since donation limits were abolished in 2008, many assumed the only way to bring them back would be through an initiative petition.
That challenge has been taken up by businessman and social conservative activist Fred Sauer, who bankrolled a campaign to get Amendment 2 on the ballot. Sauer ran for governor as a Republican in 2012 and has long been critical of the role of money in Missouri politics – especially at it relates to measures he felt expanded embryonic stem cell research.
Todd Jones, who wrote the amendment, said Missouri’s unlimited system has had a big impact on candidates and politicians who are in office. That’s especially the case, he said, when prolific donors like Rex Sinquefield and David Humphreys are spending millions of dollars on individual candidates.
“If you give a million dollars to a candidate, whose call are you going to take?” Jones said. “Are you going to take mine? Or are you going to take the donor's? So there’s a lot of issues with undue influence and impact that donation has on the actual politician.”
Among other things, Amendment 2 would:
- Cap donations to state legislative, judicial or statewide offices at $2,600.
- Curb donations from individual entities or other committees to political party committees at $25,000.
- Bar corporations or labor unions from making direct contributions to campaigns. They would still be able to create a PAC and advocate for or against candidates.
- Ban a political candidate from donating directly to another candidate’s committee.
- Bar a Missouri candidate from accepting contributions from an out-of-state committee unless that committee files paperwork with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
- Prevent a political action committee from taking contributions from other PACs, which is commonly known as a committee-to-committee transfer.
- Bar committees from accepting contributions from someone who isn’t a citizen of the United States, a foreign government or foreign corporation.
If Amendment 2 passes, Jones said “it will allow the people to actually take back control of their legislature, of their governor, of their lieutenant governor.”
“These candidates are going to have to come to the people to get donations,” Jones said. “They can’t rely on a few individuals in a … smoke-filled room to fully fund their campaign. Which some people have done, especially in this previous primary. And by going back to the people, you’re more accountable.”
Going far enough?
Thus far, there hasn’t been a robust campaign against Amendment 2 – which is usually a sign that the measure has a good chance of passing. It’s highly likely, however, that the amendment will face a legal challenge if it passes, primarily based on whether it’s legal to bar certain types of corporations from donating to campaigns.;
And even though Jones emphasized how the amendment tries to prevent committee-to-committee transfers that have greatly weakened previous donation limit systems, it doesn’t cover every type of committee in the campaign finance system.
For one thing, it would not place limits on contributions to any third-party committee (one that is not set up by a candidate). Jones said previous attempts to curb such activity in other states ran into constitutional challenges.
“The Supreme Court has stated unequivocally that you cannot stop an issue-based campaign and limit their free-speech through their donations,” Jones said.
But that reality has led some Republicans who oppose donation limits to question how effective the amendment would be in keeping money out of politics.
“When it comes to campaign contribution limits, we have those at the federal level,” said Republican state Senate nominee Bill Eigel. “I believe there’s been a loss of transparency. Because the same amount of money is finding its way into our campaigns at the federal level – and the same amount of cynicism and negativity still exists as a result of that money going into federal campaigns.”
The amendment also doesn’t limit contributions to municipal or county candidates. And that’s led some to worry about the following scenario:
- Somebody opens a campaign committee to raise funds for mayor or county commission.
- That candidate raises an unlimited amount of money.
- Then, that candidate changes the municipal or county committee into a state legislative or statewide committee – and thus possesses a massive fundraising advantage over potential opponents.
Jones says the amendment’s prohibitions against committee-to-committee transfers would prevent such a scenario. Missouri Ethics Commission executive director James Klahr said earlier this year that, while past decisions effectively prohibited that hypothetical scenario, commissioners would have to revisit the issue if the amendment passes.
“We would probably anticipate that we would get new and fresh requests for opinions on the new language, assume it survives challenges and actually becomes law of the land,” Klahr said.
Follow Jason Rosenbaum on Twitter: @jrosenbaum
Follow Jo Mannies on Twitter: @jmannies
Music: "Everything in its Right Place" by Radiohead