Campaign, Ethics Reform - The Missourian: Opinion

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Campaign, Ethics Reform

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Posted: Friday, November 30, 2012 5:00 pm

Shortly after Democratic state lawmakers announced this week that they would push for an ethics and campaign finance bill in the 2013 session, Republicans responded they also would seek to tighten the rules on campaign funding and ethics.

That’s good news for our state. Missouri campaign finance and ethics laws have been called the most lax in the country.

In fact, our state has the dubious distinction of being the only one that allows its lawmakers to receive both unlimited gifts from lobbyists and unlimited campaign donations from supporters.

There is plenty of evidence that politicians, lobbyists, special interest groups, and a few wealthy individuals are taking full advantage of the situation. This past election cycle saw an unprecedented amount of large campaign donations from a variety of sources, including a few wealthy individuals like retired St. Louis investor Rex Sinquefield who wasn’t shy about writing six-figure checks to candidates he supported.

Over $18 million has made its way into Missouri campaign funds in donations of over $5,000 each this past year.

While the big checks didn’t always guarantee victory, the amount of large donations pouring into statewide and even local races was eye-opening. Without question it has changed the campaign dynamics in our state.

If you subscribe to the notion that money in politics corrupts, then you should be concerned about the current state of affairs in the Show-Me state, which could be dubbed the Show-Me the Money state.

The increasing amounts of gifts and other handouts from lobbyists to lawmakers should also give Missourians pause. Lawmakers have always accepted meals, tickets, trips and other gifts from lobbyists. It’s nothing new. But in the absence of any restrictions, lawmakers are accepting the largess of lobbyists at unprecedented levels. According to Missouri Watchdog, a blog focusing on state politics, the biggest recipient of gifts from lobbyists this year is Rep. Ryan Silvey, R-Kansas City, who accepted a whopping $9,656.40.  He’s followed by Rep. Mike Talboy, D-Kansas City at $6,494.93.

To be sure, not every lawmaker accepts handouts at these levels — some refuse to take any gifts from lobbyists. But it reinforces the corrosive image that you have to “pay to play” in Jefferson City. One lawmaker described the situation in Jefferson City as the “wild, wild West” when it comes to ethics laws.

While campaign contribution limits and restrictions on gifts from lobbyists are two separate issues, they often go hand-in-hand in the state capital.

It wasn’t always this way. Missouri voters first enacted campaign contribution limits in 1994. A lawsuit over whether the cap limited free speech made it to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the limit was upheld.

The state Legislature then voted to repeal the cap in 2006 and again in 2008 after the initial vote was thrown out in court.

In 2010, lawmakers passed a bill that contained measures to bring more transparency to campaigns. The bill didn’t contain donation caps but would have limited the shuffling of money among various political committees. That law was struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court.

This year Democrats are touting a proposal that would, among other things, cap campaign contributions for legislators and statewide elected officials at $5,000 per donor for each election and limit gifts lawmakers and immediate family members can accept from lobbyists to $1,000 annually.

We think that is a good starting point. We hope Republicans in the Legislature agree.

/opinion

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