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Sinquefield part of lawsuit to derail proposed campaign contribution amendment

This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Aug. 13, 2013: Retired financier Rex Sinquefield -- one of the state's most generous political donors -- is part of a lawsuit challenging a proposed constitutional amendment to establish limits on campaign contributions.

And a spokesman says that Sinquefield plans to seek legal action against any such proposal, because he staunchly opposes limits.

Earlier this year, Missouri Roundtable for Life submitted a constitutional amendment to install campaign donation limits for circulation for signatures.

Among other things, the amendment would limit campaign contributions to $2,600 for statewide, state legislative and judicial candidates. It would also restrict contributions to political parties and political party committees.

It would not apply to county or municipal offices.

Since 2008, Sinquefield has given nearly $26.8 million to various federal, state and local candidates. Most recently, he’s funded an advertising campaign to build support to override Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of a tax cut bill.

As first reported by the Kansas City Star, Sinquefield and lobbyist Travis Brown filed a lawsuit in June in Cole County Court to upend the roundtable's amendment.

In an interview, Brown told the Beacon that the lawsuit was prompted by their concern with “freedom and speech expression, our most precious thing guaranteed in our U.S. Constitution.”

When asked to elaborate on why they believe the amendment violated free speech and expression, Brown replied, “A better question or a better answer might be, why isn’t it? Why isn’t your freedom of speech represented by your support or opposition of any voice?”

The lawsuit – filed by three attorneys from Jefferson City-based Blitz Bardgett & Deutsch – states that the initiative-petition proposal "burdens free speech."

"Then-existing campaign contribution limits were removed in the state in 2008, and there is no indication that corruption, or the appearance of corruption, is presently existent or threatened so as to warrant new campaign contribution limits," the suit said. "Thus there is no rational basis, much less a compelling reason, to curtail constitutional rights."

Suit challenges ballot summary, fiscal note

The suit also contends that Secretary of State Jason Kander’s ballot summary is “insufficient and unfair” and that it “inaccurately suggests the limits apply to all campaign contributions, when in actuality the limits only apply to candidate committees for candidates in an election for statewide office, state senator, or state representative.”

(Federal law already limits contributions to congressional and presidential candidates.)

The roundtable's amendment states that the $2,600 limit applies to “the office of governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state treasurer, state auditor, attorney general, office of state senator, office of state representative or any other state or judicial office.”

Molly McCann, the executive director of Missouri Roundtable for Life, confirmed in an e-mail that the contribution limits under the amendment would not apply to county or municipal offices.

The lawsuit also contends that state Auditor Tom Schweich’s fiscal note summary does not disclose the potential costs “to the state for the federal and state litigation to challenge the constitutionality of the proposed measure.” It also said the fiscal note summary “does not disclose the potential costs as indicated by the Department of Corrections.”

McCann said in a follow-up e-mail that her group did not have a response to the lawsuit. Missouri Roundtable for Life President Fred Sauer said earlier this year “unlimited campaign contributions are corrupting politicians and creating the appearance of corruption in Jefferson City.”

In a statement, Kander's spokesman Kevin Flannery said, “Our office is a nonpartisan representative for Missourians in the initiative petition process.”

“We write impartial and accurate ballot summary language for every petition, and we are confident that the court will uphold our language as fair and sufficient,” Flannery said.

Schweich spokesman Spence Jackson said in an e-mail that "we have no comment on this pending court matter other than to say that these things are a common practice in the initiative petition process."

Sinquefield and Brown also filed a lawsuit against a Democratic Party push last election cycle to enact campaign contribution limits. That suit effectively became moot after supporters didn’t turn in signatures to place the measure on the ballot.

When asked if he and Sinquefield would challenge any other ballot item that capped campaign contributions, Brown said “absolutely.”

That’s notable because Nixon has promised to support an initiative petition if the GOP-controlled General Assembly failed to act on the issue. It's possible that Sauer's amendment may not be the only vehicle to cap campaign contributions.

Constitutional approach

In some ways, the roundtable’s amendment may provide a blueprint of sorts for advocates of contribution limits.

If voters approved the amendment, any alterations would require another statewide vote. That’s important, especially given the fact that the Missouri legislature repealed campaign contribution limits in 2008.

When Sauer ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2012 as a Republican, reinstating campaign contributions was one of his major priorities.

While Democrats have been the main advocates for limits on campaign contributions, pointing to Sinquefield and others, Sauer and other social conservatives have bristled against the big donations by proponents of stem cell research.

Still, a constitutional amendment requires more signatures than a statutory change – a process that could cost potentially millions of dollars.

According to Kander’s office, supporters of the amendment must gather signatures from registered voters “equal to 8 percent of the total votes cast in the 2012 governor's election from six of the state's eight congressional districts.”

Allen Rostron, a law professor with the University of Missouri-Kansas City, was quoted in the Kansas City Star saying the sort of campaign contribution limits being proposed are “quite clearly constitutional under current law.”

And while Rostron said contribution limits are typically written in statute, he added that “state constitutions are often not like the U.S. Constitution.”

“State constitutions are a real grab bag of all kinds of things that you wouldn’t think (belong in a) ‘constitution,’” Rostron said. “I don’t know specifically where campaign finance stuff has been addressed in other states, whether they’re in statute or whether they’re in state constitutions. But it doesn’t totally surprise me, just because state constitutions have all sorts of weird stuff that doesn’t seem like it belongs there.”

(Rex Sinquefield is a donor to the St. Louis Beacon.)

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

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