Government & Politics

Missouri voters like campaign donation limits, but will the courts?

Veteran anti-abortion activist and businessman Fred Sauer has been floating the idea of an initiative petition to reinstate contribution limits for years.
Veteran anti-abortion activist and businessman Fred Sauer has been floating the idea of an initiative petition to reinstate contribution limits for years.

Money poured into Missouri politics in 2016 like never before.

More than $100 million in large contributions — checks larger than $5,000 — were doled out to Missouri campaigns since the Aug. 2 primary. That’s four times more than the same period in 2014 and more than double the total in 2012.

On Tuesday, Missourians decided to turn off the spigot.

Seventy percent of voters approved an amendment to the state constitution capping donations to candidates at $2,600 per election and to political parties at $25,000. The amendment also imposes restrictions aimed at preventing political committees from obscuring the source of their money.

Despite overwhelming voter approval, though, the amendment faces an uncertain future.

Lawsuits are inevitable, challenging every aspect of the new limits set to go into effect next month. And critics say even if the new law does survive the onslaught of litigation, wealthy donors and interest groups will find ways around it.

Those who helped craft the amendment and shepherd it through the initiative process say the new contribution limits will not only survive but will change the way politics is conducted in the Show-Me State.

“This is a rejection of a system where a small group of people have control over our elected officials,” said Todd Jones, an attorney who helped draft the contribution limits amendment.

Reinstating limits

In 1994, 74 percent of Missouri voters approved a ballot measure limiting contributions to state candidates — $1,350 for statewide candidates, $675 for Senate candidates and $325 for House candidates.

Those limits remained in place for more than a decade, surviving lawsuits that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

That ended when the General Assembly voted to repeal the limits in 2008, arguing that doing so would improve transparency. In the years since, several lawmakers who voted to do away with contribution limits have come to regret the decision.

Former state Sen. Scott Rupp, a St. Louis County Republican, calls the vote to repeal contribution limits the biggest regret of his legislative career. Same goes for Sen. David Pearce, a Warrensburg Republican, who said earlier this year that the “grand experiment” of limitless contributions was a failure.

But legislative leaders oppose contribution limits, and thus the idea of lawmakers reinstating them was considered a pipe dream.

Vote of the People

Enter Fred Sauer.

The veteran anti-abortion activist and businessman from the St. Louis suburbs had been floating the idea of an initiative petition to reinstate contribution limits for years. He’d even poured millions of his personal fortune into the effort.

Few took Sauer’s efforts seriously, seeing it more as a quixotic journey of a political gadfly than a genuine threat to the status quo.

Then this summer, the organization he founded and bankrolled, Returning Government to the People, submitted more than 272,000 petition signatures to get a campaign contributions limit constitutional amendment on the November ballot.

Opponents sued, asking the court to keep the amendment off the ballot because it infringed on free-speech rights of certain groups. An appeals court ruled that they must wait until after the election to bring their lawsuit.

Thus, the amendment made its way onto the ballot and cruised to an easy victory on Election Day.

Critics from all sides

Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, called the amount of money in Missouri politics “disgusting.” But he worries a court will end up throwing out the Sauer amendment “because the limits are too restrictive.”

Since 70 percent of voters said they want contribution limits, he’s hopeful campaign finance reform legislation he’s filed in recent years can finally get traction. His bill last year sets contribution limits at $10,000 for statewide candidates, $5,000 for state Senate candidates and $2,500 for state House candidates.

“I’ll use this year’s vote as a testament that the people want change,” he said.

James Harris, a veteran Republican political consultant, said he sees Sauer’s amendment as an unconstitutional restriction on free speech. If it does ultimately survive legal challenges, he worries it will return Missouri to a system that is far less transparent.

“Proponents had very laudable goals and intentions,” Harris said. “They wanted to reduce the influence of special interests and the perception of pay to play. But I don’t think this will have the desired effect.”

Wealthy donors will find ways around the new limits, Harris said, just like they did under the old limits.

“You can have all the laws in the world,” Harris said, “but if you have unethical people, they’ll find a way around them.”

A new era

Jones said criticism of the amendment is unfounded.

If the limits aren’t too restrictive for federal candidates, he asked, why would they be too restrictive for state candidates?

Contributions at the federal level, such as those to presidential candidates, are capped at $2,700 per election.

He also noted that federal courts have upheld donation limits in other states.

The amendment contains several provisions aimed at preventing donors from concealing how they are spending money on candidates, Jones said, such as requiring out-of-state PACs to register with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

The amendment also bans corporations and labor unions from donating directly to candidates. Instead, they must form political action committees that can accept contributions or dues from their members.

The ultimate result, Jones said, is that politicians will “no longer be able to fund their campaigns by making a few phone calls from their desks.”

“Instead of looking in their Rolodex to find someone to fully fund their campaign,” he said, “they’ll have to work harder and be accountable to the very people they are supposed to serve.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock