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Editor's Weekly: Tracking Money In Politics

Retired financier Rex Sinquefield has provided funding for Better Together's efforts and could spend millions to get the measure on the 2020 ballot.

The latest chapter of Power Players – Jason Rosenbaum's periodic watchdog report on political fundraising in Missouri – shows that Democrats topped Republicans in collecting big donations in 2013. But Rex Sinquefield was the state's most prolific donor. Again.

A retired financier who grew up in St. Vincent's Orphanage, Sinquefield gave $3,865,000 to candidates and causes that can advance his up-by-the bootstraps philosophy. Tax reduction and school choice have been among his top priorities.

Power Players complementsLobbying Missouri, Chris McDaniel's ongoing look at lobbyists' spending. Combined, the two projects give you the most complete picture available of how dollars flow through Missouri politics. St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon will continue to track this powerful force. And we'll continue to update the interactive tools that allow you to explore the information for yourself, zeroing in on particular officials, interest groups, lobbyists or donors.

While the total of Sinquefield's giving may boggle your mind, the pattern should come as no surprise. Sinquefield has been forthright about his beliefs and about how much he gives to advance his ideas. He's even deliberately made donations one dollar over the limit that triggers immediate disclosure, assuring that his role will become public before the ballots are cast rather than after.

Those who contend that full disclosure is the best way to temper the influence of money in politics might want to make Sinquefield Exhibit A in explaining how this can work. Missouri's regulation of campaign donations is among the weakest in the nation, but many of the causes and candidates Sinquefield favors have lost.

Yet Sinquefield's giving could be Exhibit A for the opposite argument as well – that unlimited donations give well-funded interests unfair advantages. Despite defeats, causes and candidates with access to deep pockets tend to bounce back. With time and persistence, Sinquefield may succeed.

This year, as Marshall Griffin and Jo Mannies have reported, various ethics proposals are again on the table in Jefferson City. In an election year, that's a popular topic. Through many election cycles, waves of campaign finance reform have come and gone.

Still, the money flows like water – eventually cutting channels over, under, around and through whatever legal barriers are enacted. In part, that's because the First Amendment not only protects free speech but certain rights to put your money where your mouth is. In part, that's because people differ over what constitutes a "special interest" (and should be regulated) and what constitutes the public interest (and should be protected). Just ask business and labor.

A few years ago, public financing of campaigns inspired a flurry of effort in St. Louis and elsewhere. Supporters said this was the only meaningful way to level the playing field so that ideas and candidates could rise or fall on their merits. But giving money to politicians proved to be about as popular as Congress itself, which languishes near an all-time low in public esteem.

Democratic congressional candidate Arthur Lieber tried a different tack in 2010, voluntarily eschewing donations and organizing his campaign around grassroots contact. He felt frustrated in getting his message across to voters and lost soundly.

All this would seem to be a good argument that full disclosure is the best hope for ensuring the integrity of the political system. Yet we're nowhere near achieving full disclosure and in some respects seem to be moving further away.

Timeliness is a major problem. Many donations flood campaigns in the final, crucial days but are not revealed until later. That means voters can't possibly be fully informed. Also, the rise of Super PACs and the coordinated flow of donations around the country, as reported recently by The New York Times, means the original source of many donations remains secret.

Even when donors are disclosed, the information can be hard to decipher and the patterns can be hard to see. And let's be frank: Many voters complain about political manipulation, yet don't seek out information that would innoculate them against manipulation. Why do negative ads and cheap shots persist despite the biennial hue and cry against them? Because they work.

Campaign finance reformers decry special interests for wielding the levers of power, but citizens still control the lever in the voting booth. Any effort to ensure the integrity of the political system – whether by more regulation, more disclosure or both – will depend on voters becoming more informed and active.

At St. Louis Public Radio and the Beacon, informing voters is a top priority. You deserve to know who's giving money, why and what difference that makes. Our Lobbying Missouri and Power Players reports will continue, as will our efforts to analyze the prospects and potential impact of changes to campaign finance regulation. It's not our job to tell you whether or what reforms should be enacted. It's very much our job to make sure you understand the system as it is and the implications of change.

Margaret Wolf Freivogel is the editor of St. Louis Public Radio. She was the founding editor of the St. Louis Beacon, a nonprofit news organization, from 2008 to 2013. A St. Louis native, Margie previously worked for 34 years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch as a reporter, Washington correspondent and assistant managing editor. She has received numerous awards for reporting as well as a lifetime achievement award from the St. Louis Press Club and the Missouri Medal of Honor from the University of Missouri School of Journalism. She is a past board member of the Investigative News Network and a past president of Journalism and Women Symposium. Margie graduated from Kirkwood High School and Stanford University. She is married to William H. Freivogel. They have four grown children and seven grandchildren. Margie enjoys rowing and is a fan of chamber music.