Government & Politics

Big donations flow to group trying to change Missouri government, raising GOP eyebrows

There is a perception in Kansas City and St. Louis that rural lawmakers exert outsized influence in the state Capitol in Jefferson City.
There is a perception in Kansas City and St. Louis that rural lawmakers exert outsized influence in the state Capitol in Jefferson City. File photo

A proposed ballot measure that would make sweeping changes to state government is picking up momentum — and cash.

Missouri Republicans are starting to take notice.

A group called Clean Missouri has been collecting signatures to put a constitutional amendment before state voters that would ban all lobbyist gifts to legislators larger than $5; require legislators and their staff to wait two years before becoming lobbyists after they leave the Capitol; and rework how legislative districts are drawn.

Earlier this month Clean Missouri received a $250,000 donation from MOVE Ballot Fund, a St. Louis-based political action committee connected to a nonprofit of the same name.

Three days before the donation to Clean Missouri, MOVE received a $300,000 donation from the Open Society Policy Center, the lobbying arm of liberal billionaire George Soros’ philanthropic network. MOVE reported raising only $100 before that donation.

Sam Cooper, executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, said the donation was an example of hypocrisy by Democrats, who have hammered GOP-aligned groups over the last year when they’ve taken steps to shuffle money around to conceal its source.

Cooper keyed in on the provisions in the ballot measure that would reform legislative redistricting.

“Under the guise of ‘Clean Missouri,’ they’ve accepted hundreds of thousands of dollars from George Soros in order to rewrite the Missouri Constitution in an attempt to disenfranchise Missouri voters,” Cooper said. “I wish I could say I was surprised, but after years of getting their tails kicked at the ballot box, I guess using Soros money to redraw legislative districts is the only chance they have of winning.”

The comparison between the Clean Missouri donation and GOP-aligned nonprofits working to obfuscate donors is inaccurate, said Molly Fleming, the group’s executive director, because MOVE set up its PAC specifically to be as transparent as possible about its efforts to support Clean Missouri.

“We’re really excited about the opportunity presented by the Clean Missouri effort to make our state government more open and accountable,” Fleming said. “Big money and political insiders have been running the show for too long — leaving working people out in the cold.”

Sean Nicholson, executive director of Clean Missouri, said the group’s proposal has earned “support from across the political spectrum because everyone can see what’s been going on in Jefferson City. We’re all ready to restore integrity, transparency and accountability in our state government.”

The redistricting provisions of the proposed ballot measure would turn over the task of drawing legislative districts to a nonpartisan expert, whose work would then be reviewed by a citizen commission. Competitiveness would be a required criteria for drawing districts, and an independent state demographer would help create the maps, which are set to be redrawn after the 2020 census.

The goal, according to Clean Missouri, is to ensure legislative maps are drawn fairly, rather than being drawn to protect incumbents or to unjustly favor one party.

Legislative redistricting in Missouri now is handled by two bipartisan commissions, one for each chamber. The governor selects members of the commission from lists of nominees submitted by the state committees of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Cooper said he expects the redistricting provision to doom the larger ballot measure if it does end up on the statewide ballot later this year.

“I’m confident,” Cooper said, “that Missouri voters won’t let out-of-state liberal billionaires change the way we elect our representatives.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock