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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: St. Louis aldermen will take another look at campaign contribution limits

Alderman Scott Ogilvie, D-24th, leveled harsh criticism on the stadium proposal during Thursday's meeting.
File photo | Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Alderman Scott Ogilvie, D-24th, is once again proposing a bill to cap contributions for city-level offices. His 2013 bill didn't pass.

When St. Louis Alderman Scott Ogilvie proposed limiting political donations for St. Louis-based offices three years ago, the 24th Ward Democrat wanted to place curbs on what he felt was an abnormal state campaign finance system.

He’s introducing the legislation again, and there may an added sense of urgency to pass Ogilvie’s bill – especially if a campaign finance ballot initiative makes it into the Missouri Constitution.

Ogilvie’s legislation, which is slated to receive a committee hearing this week, would place a $10,000 donation limit for the city’s array of offices, such as alderman, mayor, comptroller, recorder of deeds or sheriff. It would also create a city ethics commission aimed at enforcing the limits.

Missouri does not have limits on political donations, a distinction that’s sparked plenty of talk – but not a lot of legislative action.St. Louis does have some donation limitations, (as does Kansas City) including prohibitions on taking contributions from gaming interests.

“If you put these things in front of voters or you poll people, almost nobody says unlimited donations are a good thing,” Ogilvie said. “And yet, we live in a state with unlimited donations. So we at a city level can do something about it. Kansas City has done something about it since 2010, and there’s no reason why we in St. Louis shouldn’t act. And it is meaningful. There are mega-donations in local elections.”

It’s fair to say that Ogilvie’s proposal received a somewhat mixed reception several years ago.Its failure prompted Ogilvie to observe: “It’s interesting right? We’ve got a board of 28 Democrats and you can’t get a campaign finance bill passed?

“People look at how it might affect the races of people they support – like a race for mayor or a race for another citywide office. They don’t want to limit somebody’s capacity to raise money if they’re a little behind the money game and they support that person. I think that’s what really made it not move forward last time.”

While a number of aldermen thought capping contributions was a good idea, they questioned whether Ogilvie’s proposal would be that effective. Some wondered whether citywide officeholders who had accumulated a lot of money over the years (like St. Louis Collector of Revenue Gregory F.X. Daly) would have a big advantage over newcomers who would operate under a limited system.

Since Ogilvie’s bill wouldn’t go into effect until after the 2017 election cycle, he said that problem should resolve itself.

“I don’t want to create an unfair playing field,” he said. “Some of the people with a lot of money in their campaign accounts will spend it down by next year. And we can say we’re not going to have the free-for-all anymore. And we can kind of hit the reset button and start over at a reasonable level with very reasonable limits."

Looming cloud

There may be another impetus of sorts for Ogilvie’s bill to pass.

Alderman Tom Villa, standing, chats with Alderman Scott Ogilvie as their colleagues debate the stadium financing bill Dec. 15, 2015.
Credit Rachel Lippmann | St. Louis Public Radio | File photo
Alderman Tom Villa, standing, chats with Alderman Scott Ogilvie as their colleagues debate the stadium financing bill Dec. 15, 2015.

A proposed constitutional amendment financed by businessman Fred Sauer would impose donation limits for state-level offices – like governor or state representative. But it doesn’t place limits on municipal or county offices. And that means somebody could conceivably donate a boatload of money to somebody running for St. Louis mayor or alderman -- if the Sauer's amendment gets on the ballot and passes.

(It doesn't appear that Sauer's proposal places restrictions on donations to ballot initiatives or political action committees that aren’t created for a political party. And that means it almost certainly wouldn’t have prevented retired financier Rex Sinquefield from donating $6,807,613 to three PACs on May 27 -- money that could conceivably impact St. Louis' political future down the road.)

Ogilvie said it would be “a very bizarre situation [where] you can only give a few thousand dollars to someone running for governor, but you can give $500,000 to somebody running for mayor.

“I support the state amendment. But we still need to get rid of unlimited contributions at the local level,” Ogilvie said. “So these are really complementary. And even if the state amendment would not pass or does not make it on the ballot for whatever reason, there’s no reason not to address this issue at a local level. The mega donations are what really turn people off to local government – and it makes it feel like they’re going to be listen to."

(Secretary of State Jason Kander's office hasn't announced if Sauer's proposal had enough signatures to be on the 2016 ballot. And if there are enough, the measure is widely expected to face a legal challenge.)

Alderman Donna Baringer said the state amendment should prompt her colleagues to take a look at Ogilvie’s bill. But the 16th Ward Democrat, who heads the committee that will hear Ogilvie’s bill, said her colleagues will have to pay close attention to the proposal’s details.

“This is not the exact same bill – this bill’s different,” said Baringer, referring to 2013 bill. “So we’re going to go over this bill to see what the differences are, do some comparison and see if it’s doable. I mean, that’s what the committee hearings are for – so we can vet out everything we need to vet on bills.” 

Ogilvie will also have to convince some of his skeptical colleagues to sign onto his legislation, such as Alderman Tom Villa. He said he assumed Ogilvie came up with the $10,000 limit threshold “by throwing a feathered dart at a board.”

“Having said that, does it eliminate the Rex Sinquefields of the world? No,” said Villa, D-11th Ward. “It certainty makes it more difficult for him to write me a half-million check.”

“Our attempts to become cutting edge as it relates to campaign finance reform is fine,” he added. “If the younger people feel that they should put a limitation on what I can raise in a mayor’s race, I’d be willing to look at it.”

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.