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Missouri Democrat Chris Koster supports effort to limit campaign contributions

Attorney General Chris Koster, the Democratic nominee for governor.
Attorney General Chris Koster, the Democratic nominee for governor.

Breaking from years of opposition to the idea, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Chris Koster formally came out in support of an initiative petition that would reinstate campaign contribution limits in Missouri.

“While the ballot initiative to re-institute contribution limits is imperfect, large, dark money donations have a corrosive impact on our politics,” Koster said. “I believe contribution limits are one of the few legal remedies left for government to earn back the public’s trust. This is why I support the passage of the proposed constitutional amendment to impose campaign contribution limits.”

During his time in the Missouri Senate, Koster voted to remove donation limits twice — first in in 2006 when he was a Republican and again in 2008 after he became a Democratic. Since then, he’s consistently opposed efforts to reinstate them.

In an interview Tuesday afternoon with The Star, he said he voted to repeal limits in an effort to improve transparency.

In the years leading up to the repeal, big donors like retired St. Louis investor Rex Sinquefield formed multiple committees to skirt the donation limits and funnel money to candidates. That made it difficult to track campaign cash. It would be easier for the public to track who is backing politicians, proponents argued, with no contribution limits in place.

But Koster said two things have changed.

“Back in 2006, the largest contributions were $25,000,” he told The Star. “Now we’re seeing $500,000 and $1 million contributions, dramatically disproportionate to anything we’ve seen in Missouri history.”

Secondly, the transparency he’d hoped for has evaporated.

“There are seven figure contributions coming in to the political system, and no one knows where they are coming from,” he said, hitting his Republican opponent, Eric Greitens, who accepted $1.9 million from a federal PAC that won’t disclose its donors until October.

But the changes designed to thwart mega donors like Sinquefield, whose $45 million in donations since 2008 is far and away more than any person or group in Missouri politics, never really worked. He’s continued the habit of funneling money through committees. During one week in May, for example, Sinquefield gave $6.8 million to three committees, who in turn donated the cash to Sinquefield’s preferred candidates.

“What is happening in terms of essentially political oligarchs trading massive contributions back and forth is unprecedented,” Koster said. “My fear is very quickly it’s making people feel quite disconnected from their government. It’s making regular people feel very disconnected from their government.”

The position is a sharp break for Koster, who for years has questioned contribution limits and whether they can be effectively implemented since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Citizens United case. In that ruling, the court said political spending is a form of protected speech under the First Amendment, and the government may not keep corporations or unions from spending money to support or denounce individual candidates in elections.

Missouri Rising, a local chapter of a national conservative political action committee targetting Koster this year, releaed a statement blasting Koster on the change of heart.

“The only takeaway from this flip-flop is that Chris Koster continues to be a political calculator and world-class hypocrite,” said Jeremy Adler, spokesman for Missouri Rising.

Koster’s campaign for governor has had its fair share of six-figure donations, most of which have come from labor unions. He’s taken in more than $4 million in donations from unions, including a $400,000 check in March from the Eastern Missouri Laborers’ union and a $500,000 check in July from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

But while six-figure checks have become the norm in Missouri politics, 2016 has become the year of the seven-figure check.

GOP mega donor Rex Sinquefield, who gave Koster’s 2012 attorney general campaign $260,000, dropped $1 million into the campaign of Republican lieutenant governor candidate Bev Randles.

Joplin businessman David Humphreys cut a $1 million check for Republican attorney general nominee Josh Hawley.

And the $1.9 million donation to Greitens from a federal PAC called “SEALs for Truth” represented the largest single contribution to a candidate in Missouri history.

The effort to reinstall contribution limits is being bankrolled by Fred Sauer, a Republican investor from the St. Louis suburbs. His proposal would amend the state’s constitution to cap contributions to statewide candidates at $2,600 per election. Donations to political parties would be capped at $25,000. The initiative also would impose other campaign finance restrictions aimed at preventing political committees from obscuring the source of their money.

The petition was certified to be placed on the November ballot Tuesday morning, but it still must overcome a lawsuit seeking to kill it.

In November 1994, 74 percent of Missouri voters approved a ballot measure limiting contributions to state candidates. The Republican-dominated General Assembly first voted to repeal the contribution limits in 2006, but the bill was struck down on procedural grounds by the Missouri Supreme Court.

In 2008, the legislature once again repealed contribution limits, which at the time stood at $1,350 for statewide candidates, $675 for Senate candidates and $325 for House candidates.

Koster said that if the initiative petition is either knocked off the ballot or rejected by voters he’ll push for lawmakers to reinstall contribution limits if he’s elected governor. Republican legislative leaders have roundly rejected contribution limits, saying they are an unconstitutional restriction on free speech.

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