JEFFERSON CITY — Rex Sinquefield has donated more than $25 million to various Missouri politicians and campaigns over the last five years. And he’s heading to court to make sure that can continue.
By JASON HANCOCK
The Star’s Jefferson City correspondent
The retired financier from St. Louis has filed a lawsuit against Secretary of State Jason Kander and Auditor Tom Schweich over a proposed ballot initiative that would ask Missouri voters in 2014 to restore strict limits on campaign donations.
But it wasn’t Democrats or a liberal advocacy group that filed the initiative. If Sinquefield’s lawsuit is successful, the conservative mega-donor would have helped kill a measure being pushed by the anti-abortion, anti-stem-cell research organization Missouri Roundtable for Life.
A spokeswoman for Sinquefield declined to comment. Travis Brown, a longtime lobbyist for Sinquefield and a co-plaintiff in the lawsuit, said their purpose was to “defend the freedom of speech.”
Fred Sauer, the president of Missouri Roundtable for Life, also didn’t respond to requests for comment. But in a statement released earlier this year, he said his group was pushing the ballot initiative because “unlimited campaign contributions are corrupting politicians and creating the appearance of corruption in Jefferson City.”
In 1994, Missourians voted by a nearly 3-to-1 margin to limit contributions to House, Senate and statewide candidates. That measure was tossed out in court, but a Democratic-led legislature responded by passing its own set of contribution limits that were upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2000.
In 2008, a now GOP-dominated legislature passed, and Republican Gov. Matt Blunt signed, a repeal of those contribution limits. The fight over whether to reinstate the limits has been raging ever since.
Most recently, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon — who was serving as attorney general in 2000 and defended Missouri’s contribution law before the Supreme Court — made campaign finance and ethics reform a centerpiece of his State of the State address. He vowed to support a ballot measure if the legislature refused to take action but did not address this specific proposal.
The proposed ballot initiative would amend Missouri’s constitution to set a cap of $2,600 per election on donations to candidates for statewide office, the legislature and elective judicial posts. Those limits would match the standard at the federal level.
Political parties would be able to donate up to $25,000 per election, and transfers of money between campaign committees would be banned.
Sinquefield’s lawsuit argues that the contribution limits would infringe upon and criminalize the right to free speech and association under the First and Fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. The proposed limits are set so low that they “inhibit effective advocacy by those who seek election,” particularly in light of “escalating costs of campaigns,” the lawsuit said.
Since eliminating contribution limits in Missouri, “there is no indication that corruption, or the appearance of corruption, is presently existent or threatened so as to warrant new campaign contribution limits,” according to the lawsuit, and therefore there is no reason “to curtail constitutional rights.”
Allen Rostron, a professor of constitutional law at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said the sort of campaign contribution limits being proposed are “quite clearly constitutional under current law.”
“The rule has basically been that it’s OK to limit contributions as long as the level of the limits is reasonable,” he said, later adding: “Now again, that’s existing law. There’s always the chance that the U.S. Supreme Court could change the law if it feels like doing so. And the court has obviously been moving in the direction of giving more free speech protection to political spending in recent years.”
In addition to the constitutional arguments, Sinquefield’s lawsuit also contends that the summary that would appear on the ballot prepared by Kander and the fiscal note prepared by Schweich are unfair and insufficient.
In particular, the lawsuit argues that Schweich underestimates how much the proposed initiative would cost the state in lost revenue.
Candidates currently spend millions of dollars every election year for campaign workers, lodging, food, media purchases and other expenses related to running for office, Sinquefield’s attorney, Marc Ellinger, wrote in a memo to Schweich. These expenditures directly yield state and local tax revenue but also have a multiplier effect when those dollars are respent in local communities.
“Limiting campaign contributions would significantly reduce campaign spending in Missouri and have a serious negative fiscal impact to both the state and local governments,” Ellinger wrote.
While Schweich estimated the cost of implementing the contribution limits would be $118,000 in additional funds for the Missouri Ethics Commission, Ellinger argues that cost would be at least $7.39 million a year.
Schweich declined to comment on the lawsuit, saying through a spokesman that “these things are a common practice in the initiative petition process.”
Over the years, Sinquefield has bankrolled many political campaigns and causes, but his overarching focus has been on two passions: tax policy and education reform. According to an analysis by the St. Louis Beacon, Sinquefield has donated $26.8 million since 2008, more than five times as much as any other individual in Missouri.
Roundtable for Life has its own wealthy benefactor who has shown a willingness to write six-figure checks. Sauer donated $300,000 to the group in 2006, when it was fighting a ballot measure pertaining to embryonic stem-cell research.
Last year, Sauer gave $450,000 to his unsuccessful campaign for the Republican nomination for governor.
According to the secretary of state’s office, in order for the proposed contribution limits to end up on the ballot, the Roundtable for Life would have to collect signatures from registered voters equal to 8 percent of the total votes cast in the 2012 governor’s election from six of the state’s eight congressional districts.