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Politicians fatten coffers before Missouri's new campaign-donation limits kick in

stacks of money

Updated Dec. 8  from Dec. 1 article to reflect more donations and suit actually filed - Opponents filed suit Wednesday to block part of Missouri’s new campaign donation law slated to go into effect Thurday. The suit doesn't challenge the new campaign-finance limits, but does ask the court to block a ban on some donors.

Meanwhile, some politicians – notably Gov.-elect Eric Greitens – appear to be taking advantage of the guaranteed one-month window to stock up on cash before the new limits go into effect. On Wednesday, the final day of unlimited donations, Greitens collected $2,382,860.

Greitens' last-minute donors include Joplin businessman David Humphreys and his sister, Sarah Atkins, who each gave the soon-to-be governor $500,000 apiece.

Since Election Day, Greitens has collected more than $2.6 million in large donations that will be outlawed under the new constitutional amendment. The Republican candidate’s campaign has been, by far, the most aggressive in raising money, among the officeholders or candidates who would be affected by the looming restrictions.

Under Amendment 2, as it was known on the ballot, candidates for statewide or legislative offices will be limited to individual donations no larger than $2,600 per donor per election.

The measure also caps donations to political party committees to $25,000 per election and bars direct donations from corporations or labor unions. The latter groups could, however, set up political action committees that could donate money to candidates.

Almost 70 percent of Missouri voters supported the amendment. In fact, Amendment 2 got more votes — 1,877,477 — than any candidate on the Nov. 8 ballot, including President-elect Donald Trump. (Only Amendment 1, which reauthorized the state’s conservation sales tax, had more support.)

The measure partially restores more restrictive campaign-donation limits – covering all candidates, statewide or local – that were in place from 1995 through much of 2008, before state lawmakers repealed them.

Greitens’ campaign has not responded to requests for comment about why it is making a final financial pitch. It’s unclear if the large contributions are being sought to simply fatten up his depleted campaign bank account, or if the money might be used to help coverinaugural festivities or expenses tied to his swearing-in on Jan. 9.

Big money flows into coffers before deadline

Since Nov. 9, the day after the election, Missouri candidates and campaign committees have collected more than $2 million in donations over $5,000 apiece. Some of the recipients will, like Greitens, be covered by the new limits.

They include state Auditor Nicole Galloway, soon to be the only Democratic statewide official in Jefferson City. She has raised at least $60,000 in large donations since Election Day. That money came from unions.

Other large money-raisers, notably St. Louis’ candidates for mayor, will not be affected by the new limits. Amendment 2 does not apply to candidates for county or municipal offices.

Jefferson City lawyer Chuck Hatfield represents some critics, such as Legends Bank and some rural utility cooperatives, who filed suit Wednesday to try to change some of Amendment 2's restrictions.

Hatfield emphasized, "We are not challenging the limits."

Rather, Hatfield and his clients long have maintained that parts of Amendment 2 are unconstitutional because, among other things, it bars certain banks and utilities -- notably, rural cooperatives -- from donating to candidates.

"They don't have a problem with campaign finance limits that apply reasonably to everyone,'' Hatfield said. What they're concerned about is that this measure goes further than just imposing limits. It allows some corporations to participate in the political process, while banning others."

The suit also challenges Amendment 2's ban on transfers between political action committees, and its provision barring campaign donations from foreign entities, even if they are registered to do business in Missouri.

Court fight creates unusual alliances

The Missouri Supreme Court stopped the opponents’ efforts to keep Amendment 2 off the ballot, stating that voters needed to have their say before the critics could challenge the measure.

Since Election Day, the rural cooperatives have contributed at least $305,000 in large donations to their political-action committees. Those contributions may help bankroll their legal fight.

St. Louis lawyer Todd Jones drafted Amendment 2, which was otherwise bankrolled by wealthy conservative Fred Sauer, who has sought donation limits for years. Sauer claims that a few mega-donors – notably financier Rex Sinquefield and businessman David Humphreys – have been too influential in state government because of their large contributions.

Jones isn’t surprised by the lawsuit. “We expected that,’’ he said, referring to the pro-amendment campaign group he represents, called Return Government to the People.

The campaign committee expects to be actively defending the amendment, which otherwise may have few allies in state government. Greitens has said he opposes campaign-donation limits, as does Attorney General-elect Josh Hawley.

Hawley’s staff will be required by law to defend Amendment 2 in court. But Jones said his group will be in court as well to bolster the amendment’s defenses.

The political-action committee plans to have adequate funding to finance its share of the legal fight, Jones said. It won’t be covered by the new campaign-donation limits.

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