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Unlimited campaign contributions in crosshairs of new IP

Of the four initiative petitions certified by Secretary of State Jason Kander Tuesday, the one that bans campaign contribution limits (Amendment 2) has probably not received as much attention as some of the others.

While many questioned whether Missouri would become the 26th state to legalize medical marijuana or focused on the fight between the two IPs that would raise tobacco taxes, Amendment 2 may have the most impact on Missouri’s electoral process.

The unlimited campaign contribution culture is a relatively new experiment but not necessarily a popular one in the Capitol or across the state. SB 1038 repealed campaign contribution limits in 2008. Only opposed by a relatively small number of Democrats in the Senate, Gov. Matt Blunt signed it in May 2008, one of the last pieces of legislation he would sign.

The intent of the legislation aimed to make the contribution process more transparent. Then-Sen. Charlie Shields has said that SB 1038, which he sponsored, was meant to stop under the table deals and money-shuffling through campaign and party committees that made it unclear who was giving to whom. Former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway served before the repeal and echoed similar sentiments on the campaign trail in her bid for governor.

“This bill is about creating a system of transparency, it’s about creating a system of accountability,” Shields told the Associated Press in Feb. 2008 after the bill passed out of the Senate.

Campaign contributions in Missouri politics

A lot has changed since then. Rex Sinquefield and David Humphries are household names in Missouri for the millions of dollars they pour into elections, and both Republicans and Democrats decry the other side’s most moneyed patrons (the “union bosses” propping up the left and “big business” supporting the right).

Eric Greitens gives his victory speech after winning the Republican nomination for governor Aug. 2, 2016
Eric Greitens gives his victory speech after winning the Republican nomination for governor Aug. 2, 2016.

This primary election saw the five main contenders for governor on both sides of the aisle raise a combined $40 million. Sinquefield famously donated $1 million to former lt. governor candidate Bev Randles in a single donation in 2014, $500,000 to attorney general candidate Kurt Schaefer and even more money to both of them via Sinquefield affiliated PACs. However, neither Randles nor Schaefer won their races.

But the straw that may have broken the camel’s back was a donation just shy of $2 million from a federal PAC known only as the SEALs for Truth, who gave that money to Republican nominee Eric Greitens. The donation came just days after the last filing deadline before the Aug. primary which left basic questions like who was behind SEALs for Truth and where it gotten $2 million unanswered.

While other Republican candidates drew in massive checks of their own, no one raised money this cycle like Greitens. He took a larger percentage of money from outside the state than any other candidate, and donors like Michael Goguen and Steven Cohen regularly directed unwanted attention onto his campaign.

And yet, he won the primary by a convincing margin. His victory indicates one of two things – either people do not care where the money comes from or having that kind of capital, if used effectively, can win campaigns.

Amendment 2 would change that.

Returning government to the people?

The ballot measure, submitted by the Returning Government to the People committee, would limit donors to $2,600 per candidate and $25,000 to a political party. It would prevent the concealing of names or identities of donors and ostensibly prevent the shell game the repeal hoped to prevent in the first place. It will also limit cash contributions to fewer than $100, make all donations above $25 anonymous, and would require corporations and labor organizations to meet certain requirements to donate.

You can read it in full here.

Ironically, only one person funds Returning Government to the People: St. Louis millionaire investor Fred Sauer of the Orion Investment Company. Sauer had an unsuccessful bid in 2012’s Republican gubernatorial primary. So far, he has invested over $1.1 million into the committee, and he’s the only person who has given to the group.

Regardless, Sauer believes that the large sums of money in politics have forced politicians to listen to donors instead of their constituents.

“Missouri will only be healthy again when everybody’s vote counts and representatives have to pay attention to people who elected them,” he told the Kansas City Star’s Steve Kraske in an interview in May.

A representative of Returning Government to the People did not respond to inquiries before press time.

The IP was the subject of a lawsuit alleging it violated First Amendment rights and would change more than one article in the Missouri constitution. The Western Court of Appeals voted against those claims unanimously and effectively certified the ballot title. Interestingly, the plaintiff in the case was a certain Laura Reeves represented by Marc Ellinger. Ellinger has served as counsel for Sinquefield before, and Reeves works for the Gate Way Group, of which Sinquefield is a client. Reeves also served as the COO of the World Chess Hall of Fame from 2011 to 2013, which Sinquefield relocated to St. Louis in 2010.

Shifting tides

The proposal could pass if one trusts a March poll from Fort Hays University’s Docking Institute. Seventy-five percent of Missourians support or somewhat support campaign contribution limits of some kind.

And some legislative leaders believe they made a mistake when they voted to repeal campaign contribution limits.

Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensberg
Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensberg

For the past year, Democrats argued that the ethics reform debate was meaningless without campaign contribution limits. Republicans like Sens. Rob Schaaf, Ryan Silvey, and the outgoing David Pearce have all come out in opposition to unlimited contributions in the past few years. Pearce even authored a bill on the subject for the 2016 session and attempted to amend it to HB 2166, the primary lobbyist gift ban bill, late in the session.

“The grand experiment is not working,” Pearce said on the Senate floor in May.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Attorney General Chris Koster was one of the Democratic Senators who voted in favor of Shields’ bill in 2008. He publicly came out in favor of limits just this week.

“It has become clear the current system is no longer providing the transparency and accountability I had hoped for in 2006,” Koster said in a statement released Tuesday. “While the ballot initiative to re-institute contribution limits is imperfect, large, dark money donations have a corrosive impact on our politics. I believe contribution limits are one of the few legal remedies left for government to earn back the public’s trust.”

Koster’s position switch seems to be another in a line of obstacles shifting back towards a system where unlimited campaign contributions are a thing of the past.