Small number of donations fuel Missouri political spending

03/03/2014 7:01 AM

03/03/2014 7:01 AM

During the past few years, more than 150,000 donations have poured into the political campaigns of Missouri candidate and ballot measure committees. But a tiny percentage of those checks has accounted for an outsize share of the money raised.

From 2011-2013, more than half of the money raised by Missouri campaign committees — about $67 million — came from donations of $5,000 or more, a Post-Dispatch analysis of state contribution data has found. Those larger donations represent 2.8 percent of the total number of contributions.

If the data are further narrowed to donations of $10,000 or more — 1.1 percent of all contributions — it still adds up to $53 million, roughly 42 percent of what the campaigns raised.

“The reality is, candidates need to raise money from people with deep pockets,” said George Connor, a Missouri State professor who studies state politics, “and there’s just not that many of them.”

The absence of contribution limits in Missouri exacerbates the reliance on megadonors, Connor said. Missouri is one of four states that places no caps on contributions, and is the only state that allows unlimited donations and unlimited gifts from lobbyists to public officials.

“You’ve got the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that money is the equivalent of speech,” Connor said of the court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, “and the way Missouri wants to interpret that is the broadest of any state in the Union.”

The Post-Dispatch analysis included only donations that went directly to committees for candidates and ballot initiatives. The analysis did not include the contributions to political parties and political action committees not directly affiliated with candidates or ballot measures.

Many of those donations are essentially transfers of money between individuals, groups or committees to affiliated committees, such as a when party-controlled PAC gives money to another party-controlled PAC or a corporation gives money to its own PAC. This makes calculating the exact amount of overall spending difficult.

Gov. Jay Nixon has pushed the Legislature to reinstate contribution limits, which were repealed by the Republican-controlled Legislature in 2008. Nixon, a Democrat, has raised roughly $10 million in donations of at least $5,000 since 2011, more than anyone else. Multiple ethics reform bills have been filed, including several which would limit the amount that could be donated to candidates or PACs. Ballot measure committees would not be affected.

Past attempts at ethics reforms have stalled on the issue of donation limits, and while some Republicans have joined Democrats in advocating for limits, others argue that caps restrict free speech and lead to donations being creatively shuffled between committees, making contributions harder to track.

Some Republicans have proposed legislation pushing for other ethics-related changes, leaving contribution limits off the table.

Sen. John Lamping, R-St. Louis County, introduced a bill that, among other things, would require legislators to reimburse lobbyist gifts, place cooling off-periods before they can work as political consultants and lobbyists, and strengthen personal financial disclosure requirements for legislators.

“There may be some good provisions in those (bills), but real reform only happens when we reinstate campaign finance limits,” said Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, who’s filed a separate bill that includes limits.

LeVota, who’s been a strong proponent for reinstating limits for years, conceded that it was unlikely that any proposed bill including caps would pass this session. “I don’t see that happening,” he said. “I really don’t.”

Connor agreed. “The Democrats don’t have enough muscle in Jefferson City,” he said, “and the Republicans don’t have enough of a consensus.”

Voter approval is probably the only way limits would be reinstated, LeVota said. A ballot petition to limit contributions and lobbyist gifts was approved for circulation in January.

Individuals in minority

Six and seven-figure checks from individuals such as financier Rex Sinquefield — who gave more than $2 million to candidate and ballot measure committees from 2011 to 2013 — have grabbed headlines and pushed the issue of unlimited contributions into the spotlight. (Sinquefield also donated more than $9 million to PACs.) And overall, there are plenty big checks written by wealthy individuals.

But most large campaign contributions don’t come from people, at least not directly. Of the 25 donors who gave the most large donations ($5,000 or more) to candidates and ballot measure committees, only four were individuals: Sinquefeld, former Republican gubernatorial candidate David Spence (who spent $2 million on his own campaign), Tamko CEO David Humphreys of Joplin, Mo., and Clayton businessman Sam Fox.

The rest included PACs, nonprofits, businesses and industry groups, law firms and a union.

For example, from 2011-2013, the Missouri Democratic and Republican Governors Association PACS each pumped more than $2 million into campaigns to their candidates through donations of at least $5,000, according to data from the Missouri Ethics Commission. The American Cancer Society spent $3.3 million; Missourians for Responsible Government, a nonprofit that opposed a ballot measure to limit payday loan fees, spent $2.9 million; and the Missouri Association of Realtors spent $790,000. (Many of these groups raised money, in part, by receiving large checks from individuals, according to Ethics Commission data.)

Critics of limits have argued that allowing unlimited donations leads to greater transparency because large donations can be given directly — and openly — to a campaign, as opposed to giving indirectly by funneling smaller donations through various committees.

When campaigns receive donations from political action committees, another layer is added between the original donor and the final recipient, though it’s sometimes possible to identify the donors that originally contributed to those committees. In many instances, however, determining the original source is impossible; for example, when nonprofits make donations, they don’t have to disclose their donors.

To LeVota, the fact that much of the information can be found by digging through campaign filings is inadequate.

“Most people in the state of Missouri don’t go on a convoluted Missouri Ethics Commission website … to see where people are getting their money from,” he said.

Sen. Will Kraus, R-Jackson County, has proposed limits in his own ethics bill, but said such caps probably would hurt transparency. When more money is being channeled through multiple committees, he said, “it’s going to be a little harder for you to follow.”

Even with more transparency and limits, Connor was skeptical that the influence of big spenders would go away. Some states have stringent limits and federal elections have limits on the amounts candidates can receive, he said, and the political spending still flows.

“Money,” he said, “finds its ways.”

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