Here is what money buys in the Missouri legislature:
▪ Protections for the payday lending industry against stricter regulation.
▪ Pressure to eliminate the state income tax.
▪ Challenges to the public education system, often ushered forward by over-hyped beliefs in the merits of charter schools and disgust for teachers unions.
Education, legal loan sharking and taxes — it’s not a bad list of issues. All are of interest to voters, and to some of the top donors to the Missouri legislature.
But our current system is allowing a handful of people and organizations to bend the ears of our legislators, at the expense of everyone else. It’s how palms are greased.
Star political reporter Jason Hancock recently analyzed ethics commission data — a tenet of good journalism is to “follow the money” — with some dismaying findings.
It’s easy for this type of deeper reporting to be missed right now, with the city awash in Royals fever (the story garnered two comments on our site). But mark this piece to revisit after we win the World Series.
The analysis of campaign fundraising explains how a handful of people demand an extraordinary amount of attention in Jefferson City. The answer might be pretty simple the next time you wonder why an issue fails to gain much traction in Jefferson City.
It could be this simple: It’s not a topic that moves Rex Sinquefield.
St. Louis businessman Sinquefield is the top donor, having contributed $22.1 million in amounts that exceeded $5,000 since 2011. Sinquefield out-contributed the No. 2 donor, fellow St. Louis businessman David Spence, three times over. In the long run, it doesn’t matter whether you agree with their causes or the issues they promote. A big donor from the opposite side of any issue could court the same influence with his or her checkbook.
It’s a slap to the merits of democracy. Two sets of quotes from the piece illustrate not only what is at stake, but why the current state of financing will be so difficult to dismantle.
First, there is the comment from Mark Jones, political director for the Missouri National Education Association: “The voice of the regular person is being drowned out by this loud siren of money coming from this very select class of donors.”
Second, there was the illuminating honesty of Spence. “In a perfect world, there would be contribution limits,” Spence said. “But the big donors would find a way around it. It’s discouraging, but that’s how a lot of the big donors feel. They’re going to get to the money to the candidates one way or another.”
Yes, he basically just admitted that the wealthy will push their weight around, regardless of efforts to stop them. They will have their way. As one reader posted in a comment: “What a sad state of affairs. We can’t have limits because the big donors would just do it anyway. That’s poor logic.”
All of this was brought upon voters with the legislature’s 2008 decision to get rid of contribution limits. Now the question is, does anyone care enough to fight back? And how, given that previously the large donors undercut the intention of limits by forming committees?
Individuals who are not deep-pocketed should now have greater impact on political discourse than at any time in history. After all, this is the era of social media — the public has better access to documents and politicians. But real money barks; Twitter merely peeps.
Hancock explains that it’s not true that the big donors always get their way. Their desires do not all transfer into laws passed or candidates elected. But the money does keep the focus disproportionately on their causes. The question is whether it does so at the expense of other worthy measures that voters might back.
The American Cancer Society, Association of Realtors, Missouri’s largest state-regulated utility and the National Education Association all made the list of the top 10 donors, as did two individuals and one family.
For a look at just how inappropriate that is, consider population. There are more than 6 million residents of Missouri.
No wonder so many people believe their vote doesn’t count.