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Nixon Calls On Legislature To Pass Ethics Reform

Tim Bommel/Mo. House Communications
Gov. Jay Nixon called on the legislature to pass tougher ethics legislation when it convenes in January.

Updated 7:19 p.m., Thursday, Dec. 12

Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon is once again pressing for ethics reform in state government, and for the resurrection of campaign donation limits. But this time, Nixon may be hoping for stronger interest in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, where some GOP legislators now share some of his views.

Nixon appeared in Kansas City on Thursday with three allies on the issue: state Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit; and state Reps. Jon Carpenter, D-Gladstone, and Kevin McManus, D-Kansas City. All three plan to seek ethics restrictions and campaign contribution limits during the next legislative session, which begins in January.

“Openness and accountability are bedrock principles of our democracy, so I am encouraged at the growing bipartisan consensus on the need to make ethics reform a top priority of the upcoming legislative session,” Nixon said during his stop at Kansas City’s Union Station.

"Far and away the most important element to meaningful ethics reform is to reinstate real and effective contribution limits and end the corrosive flood of unlimited campaign money to candidates." -- Gov. Jay Nixon

“From successfully defending Missouri’s campaign finance limits before the U.S. Supreme Court as attorney general, to calling for comprehensive ethics reform each year I’ve been governor, I have fought to make sure Missourians have the open, honest and accountable government they deserve. Far and away the most important element to meaningful ethics reform is to reinstate real and effective contribution limits and end the corrosive flood of unlimited campaign money to candidates.”

Kraus acknowledged that the issue isn’t always embraced by the public.

“Missouri’s ethics laws don’t always match the will of our voters,” Kraus said. “That is why I am proud to stand with Gov. Nixon and my colleagues in calling for comprehensive ethics reform, including campaign contribution limits. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the General Assembly to send a comprehensive ethics reform bill to the governor’s desk in the upcoming legislative session.”

Kraus has pre-filed a bill that, among other things, would bar legislators from  becoming lobbyists until two years after leaving office. The measure also would set a series of campaign donation limits that would vary according to the office sought. The maximum donations for state House candidates would be $1,000, the limit for state Senate candidates would be $2,5000 and statewide candidates -- including governor -- would be limited to donations of no more than $10,000 a year.

Said McManus: “Missourians deserve better than a system in which candidates can receive unlimited sums of money from special interests.”

Missouri had campaign donation limits in place from 1994 to 2008, when they were tossed out by the General Assembly and then-Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican. Nixon, a Democrat, had been heavily involved in defending Missouri’s now defunct limits during years of legal challenges.

Since he became governor, Nixon has annually called for ethics changes and the restoration of donation limits.  A bill imposing some restrictions on legislators' campaign activities, among other things, was approved by the General Assembly and signed by Nixon in 2010. But the state Supreme Court later tossed out the measure on technical grounds. 

Nixon has never been able to persuade the General Assembly to reinstate campaign-donation limits, although he has threatened to back an initiative petition drive to get the issue before voters. The state's earlier limits had been enacted by legislators in the wake of public pressure, which led to even stricter limits winning statewide voter approval in 1994. Those lower limits were later tossed out by the courts, with the limits approved by legislators upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1999.

Nixon, like most statewide officeholders and candidates, has collected donations much larger than $10,000 apiece. But he has emphasized that he did so only because his opponents also obtained huge donations.

This latest bipartisan effort was lauded by Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, who also has been calling for ethics changes. But Kander did raise some objections to Kraus’ bill, which Kander said “does not come close to what Missouri needs. Campaign finance limits are ineffective without a limit on political money laundering.

“This bill does nothing to discourage the targets of Missouri Ethics Commission investigations from lying to get out of trouble – something that is, amazingly, currently legal in our state,” Kander said. “Placing $50 per item limits on lobbyist gifts is a loophole through which legislators could still have lobbyists take them to a $50 breakfast, $50 lunch and $50 dinner every day. And preventing teachers from being involved in the political process is both wrong and unconstitutional.”

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.