The Buzz

Proposal to cap political donations in Missouri may be headed to voters

Money in politics
Money in politics

The General Assembly won’t re-impose campaign donation limits in Missouri. So now, the voters may do it.

The AP reported this week that supporters of campaign contribution limits said they had submitted more than 272,000 petition signatures in a bid to get a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, applauded the effort, calling it a “big step toward cleaning up Jefferson City.

“Millionaires and billionaires shouldn't be able to buy politicians with seven-figure checks, at the expense of middle-class Missourians,” McCaskill said in a statement. “The Missourians I hear from are sick of having lawmakers that are bought and paid for.

“It is the time to clean up this wild west of campaign finance, and end our distinction of being the only state with no limits on political contributions, gifts, and lawmakers-turned-lobbyists.”

From the AP:

The measure would cap donations to candidates at $2,600 per election and to political parties at $25,000. The initiative also would impose other campaign finance restrictions aimed at preventing political committees from obscuring the source of their money.

Missouri has no limits on political giving, and some donors routinely give five- and six-figure checks to candidates. In late 2014, mega-donor Rex Sinquefield set a new high mark for a single contribution to a candidate, giving $1 million to Republican Bev Randles as she prepared to run for lieutenant governor this year.

"It's getting to the point of being obscene," said Todd Jones, an attorney who wrote the proposed ballot measure and is a spokesman for the supporting group, Returning Government to the People.

"Candidates should have to work for the support of the people," Jones said, "instead of depending on just a few donors."

The committee backing the ballot initiative has received nearly $1.1 million, coming entirely from Fred Sauer, the founder of Orion Investment Co. in St. Louis.

The initiative's contribution limits would not apply to money given to issue-oriented committees, such as those supporting or opposing ballot measures.

In November 1994, 74 percent of Missouri voters approved a ballot measure limiting contributions to state candidates. But those limits were struck down in court, and higher limits that had been passed that same year by the legislature instead took effect. Those limits, adjusted periodically for inflation, remained in place for more than a decade.

Lawmakers first repealed campaign contribution limits in 2006, but the bill was struck down on procedural grounds by the Missouri Supreme Court after it had been in effect for about six months. In 2008, the Legislature again repealed contribution limits, which had stood at $1,350 for statewide candidates, $675 for Senate candidates and $325 for House candidates.

Supporters of the repeal noted that some donors, such as Sinquefield, had circumvented the limits by channeling numerous smaller donations through numerous different committees to candidates. They argued it would be easier for the public to track who is backing politicians with no contribution limits in place.

Since then, a few of the lawmakers who voted for the repeal have said it was a mistake. But Republican legislative leaders generally have stood by the decision, declining to consider bills reinstating the limits despite the urging of Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon.

By pursing an initiative petition, supporters of contribution limits bypassed the Legislature.

The secretary of state's office has until Aug. 9 to determine if the initiative qualified for the November ballot.

Proposed constitutional amendments need valid voter signatures from 8 percent of number of people who voted in the 2012 gubernatorial election in six of the state's eight congressional districts — a total ranging from nearly 158,000 to almost 168,000 signatures, depending on which districts are targeted.

The initiative petition on contribution limits was the first to be turned in this year. Others face a 5 p.m. Sunday deadline.

Why is everyone always talking about 'campaign finance?’ Do political donations actually matter? Washington bureau political editor Steven "Buzz" Thomma and political correspondent David Lightman explain why those donations might go further in Con