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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the trail: For some Republicans, 'ethics reform' doesn't include donation limits

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, July 29, 2013: When state Sen. Brad Lager spoke on the last day of this year's Missouri General Assembly session, he grabbed attention for calling members of the Missouri House “corrupt.”

During a 45-minute speech that scuttled last-minute economic development legislation, Lager claimed that backers of historic preservation and low-income tax credits had unduly influenced members of the House. He then expressed disappointment that the legislature had not engaged in what he dubbed “ethics reform.”

In a follow-up interview earlier this summer, Lager emphasized that his call for an ethics overhaul doesn’t include reinstating campaign contribution limits.

Lager – who raised eyebrows last year by taking six-figure donations during his lieutenant governor bid – contends that capping political donations is fruitless. 

“I’ve taken some of the largest contributions in the state," Lager said. "I was willing to say ‘I believe these things. These individuals believe it’s time for a change. They’ve given contributions of tremendous size.’

“Campaign contribution limits, all they do is force new and creative ways to get that money into politics,” he added. “Unlimited contributions or very high limits force transparency.”

Lager’s view isn’t unusual among GOP lawmakers that control the General Assembly. 

Several Republicans considering changes to the state’s ethics laws are throwing out a number of ideas – including barring lawmakers from becoming lobbyists or consultants and reigning in so-called “dark money.” But few advocate reinstating campaign contribution limits, an issue that’s been the cause célèbre for Missouri Democrats and a handful of Republicans.

Take state Sen. John Lamping. The Ladue Republican said earlier this summer that he would devote the bulk of his 2014 session to an ethics overhaul. He said his focus would be on the “legislators themselves,” including a “cooling off” period on lawmakers becoming lobbyists.

“My entire focus in this offseason is on ethics legislation,” Lamping said. “And I will be looking at the entire spectrum. You can expect me to file both a legislative fix as well as a ballot initiative fix. In these conversations, I’m more than likely to be talking to outside groups that are also contemplating the ballot.”

But Lamping went onto say that “philosophically, I think it’s free speech – so I’m against campaign contribution limits.” He added, though, that the “there are lots of different feelings about lots of different things" and he will listen to competing ideas. 

Last November, state Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, told the Beacon he would be working this session on legislation to requiring 501(c)(4) organizations to disclose their contributors. Many of those groups -- which do not have to disclose their donors -- got involved in 2012 races, including Lager's bid against Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder.

But Richardson's proposal didn't get off the ground. And the two-term lawmaker told the Beacon he would be working on fine-tuning his proposal over the summer.

Besides barring lawmakers from becoming lobbyists, Lager wants to prevent termed-out legislators from hanging onto campaign money when they’re not running for any defined office.

Although Lager singled out former House speaker and longtime adversary Steve Tilley as an example, numerous other Missouri political figures – including former House Speaker Steve Gaw, D-Moberly, former Sen. Wayne Goode, D-St. Louis and former Gov. Matt Blunt  – still have active committees without any announced plans to run for anything.

“I believe when an elected official leaves office, whatever money they raised to get them elected should not be able to be transferred to a continuing committee or something else,” Lager said. “I’ve got some money in my campaign account right now. I’m going to give it candidates that are running in the 2014 cycle. But the day I leave office, I don’t plan on having any money left in that account.”

Change of heart

But at least two legislators who voted to get rid of campaign finance limits in 2008 say the issue needs to be part of any ethics overhaul.

On separate episodes of the Politically Speaking podcast, Sens. Scott Rupp, R-Wentzville, and Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis,expressed regret for their affirmative votes on the 2008 legislation. Then-Sen. Charlie Shields' bill passed the Senate without too much trouble, but it only passed the House by the slimmest of margins.

Nasheed was one of four Democrats in the House to cast a “yea” vote, a move she attributed to anger over her colleagues’ failure to support legislation she sponsored. She called the vote an "emotional decision to vote against the Democrats."

While Rupp’s vote wasn’t decisive in passing the legislation through the Missouri Senate, he still said it was “the biggest regretting vote that I have.” He went onto say that he “woefully underestimated the amount of money that has started to flow into the campaigns.”

“I just don’t think it’s helped the system,” Rupp said. “I think it’s hurt the system when you can have a handful of individuals that can just pretty much underwrite one candidate. Why should that candidate reach out and learn about other areas of the state or reach out to different types of people and different types of voters?”

He also contended that no matter what lawmakers say, big donations do influence a legislator's decisionmaking process.

“I think that it looks bad, it smells bad,” he added. “Someone gives you a half million dollars in one check, you’re going to take their call. You’re going to listen to them. So human nature takes over.”

Nasheed said she is “going to do all that I can do to right that wrong,” which includes partnering with legislators “of like minds” to push campaign finance changes to the forefront. Rupp already sponsored legislation to put in relatively high contribution limits, but that bill went nowhere.

Secretary of State Jason Kander – who’s been on something of a crusade against the state’s unlimited campaign finance system – said in June that Missouri has “the most broken set of campaign finance and ethics laws in the entire country.”

“There is bipartisan support for change in the legislature,” said Kander at June’s Jefferson-Jackson Dinner. “And the Republican leadership in the legislature may not want to do anything about it. But I am committed to providing the pressure that it takes to make them move on it. Because we cannot be the worst in the country on this issue.”

But House Speaker Tim Jones, R-Eureka, said earlier this year that campaign donation curbs were unlikely to go anywhere.

Rupp also added he doesn't expect the GOP-controlled legislature to anything on the issue next year, unless an initiative petition is lurking in the background. Gov. Jay Nixon threatened to support a ballot item unless the legislature acted.

“The only way that the legislature would want to act would be ‘oh my gosh, if we don’t do something pre-emptive, there’s an initiative petition that’s probably going to bring it into much lower limits,’” Rupp said. “If an initiative petition comes out, it’s going to be extremely hard to beat. It’ll pass with 75 percent of the vote. I think the people want campaign finance limits.”

It's working?

While Rupp and Kander may be correct in their assertions that campaign donations limits are popular, whether they work is a different question.

Federal campaign finance limits, for instance, have been severely compromised by the rise of Super PACs, outside groups that can take in and spend donations of unlimited size. It's highly possible these groups could become more prevelent if donation limits are in place in Missouri.

Attorney General Chris Koster – who even after joining the Democratic Party voted to repeal campaign finance limits – appeared to allude this reality during his Jefferson-Jackson speech. Koster -- known for his prolific fundraising ability -- contended that “Citizens United has turned political campaigns into unbridled open fields battles.

“Our shared belief that the Supreme Court was wrong in its decision does not mean that we can wish it away.

“The hidden money behind thousands of 501(c)(4s) is real. Karl Rove’s organization in Austin, Texas, is real,” said Koster, who promised to give $400,000 to House and Senate Democratic candidates over the next four years at the dinner. “The Koch Brothers' organization is real. And our best option is now to stand our ground and face this challenge unafraid – with faith in ourselves and in our message that a united Democratic Party will succeed in places where we are strong and rebuild in places where we must.”

Even when Missouri had limits, it didn’t stop big donations from flowing – especially to ballot initiatives. James and Virginia Stowers gave more than $28 million in 2006 alone to pass a constitutional amendment protecting stem cell research, a sum more than all of retired financer Rex Sinquefield's contributions from 2008 and 2012. And ironically, a ballot initiative to reimpose campaign contribution limits would likely require hundreds of thousands -- if not millions -- of dollars to pass.

And as Lager mentioned, Missouri's prior limits were commonly circumvented with a labyrinth of political party or independently-run committees. Lager even called shuffling big donations through committees “one of the shadiest, most disgusting things” he encountered during his legislative tenure.

“If somebody isn’t willing to take $25,000 from developer XYZ and you believe you’ve got to run it through another committee,  you shouldn’t be taking it,” Lager said. “If you’re so firm in your beliefs that you’re willing to take the contribution, stand in the light of day and say ‘listen, they provided this contribution. I accepted it. Here’s why. And it doesn’t change a single thing that I believe or I’m going to do. And you’re going to hold me accountable for it.’”

Nasheed agreed that lawmakers needed to “think outside the box,” noting that Sinquefield created dozens of political action committees to get around the limits. In a speech, Kander alluded to a 2009 bill that Missouri Supreme Court struck down that included a ban on “committee-to-committee” transfers.

In addition to restricting committee-to-committee transfers, Rupp suggested restricting the structure of campaign treasurers.  Kander and then-Rep. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, proposed in 2009 to prohibit individuals from being treasurers or deputy treasurers for multiple committees.

“You need to put steps in there to make it more difficult,” Rupp said. “People will get around it. There’s way you can probably stop it. But at least you can make it very difficult rather than just ‘I’m going to hire you for $30,000 a year salary to be the treasurer of all these 400 different campaigns and just make things work out mathematically.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.