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Campaign finance limits offer new opportunities for Stenger — and political action committees

The report on the wealth gap relies on data from the Federal Reserve Board from 1983 through 2016.
Rici Hoffarth
St. Louis Public Radio

Missouri’s new campaign donation restrictionshave given new status to St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.  He now is collecting more large contributions than any other political candidate in the state.

So far this year, the Democratic official — who is running for re-election in 2018 — has taken at least 34 donations of $5,000 dollars or more.

Missouri’s runner-up is St. Louis Mayor Lyda Krewson. She collected 19 such contributions, mainly during her campaign earlier this year.

Stenger’s top money-raising status is likely secure, because Missouri’s new campaign donation limits do not affect county or municipal candidates.  As of Dec. 8 of last year, statewide or legislative officials or candidates have been restricted to individual donations of $2,600 or less. Stenger and his municipal and county government cohorts are not. 

A St. Louis Public Radio file photo of St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger.
Credit File photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger has taken more donations of $5,000 or more than any other candidate in Missouri. The state's new donation limits do not affect county or municipal candidates.

Since St. Louis County’s top post will be among the state’s key contests next year,  Stenger and his potential opponents are likely to become magnets for money because they can accept donations of any size. One of Stenger’s Democratic adversaries, Mark Mantovani, also has received a number of large donations since he opened a campaign committee.

But Stenger has had to grapple with another aspect of the state’s new campaign finance law, known as Amendment 2.

This summer, he was forced to return roughly $40,000 in contributions from certain types of corporations that are barred from donating to any Missouri candidate. The new law bars such donations to any Missouri candidates.

“We do our very best to comply with the current state of the law and we make sure that the donations we receive are lawful,” Stenger said. “And in situations where we have questions about them, I return the checks.”

Explosion in Missouri PACS

At fundraising events, Stenger said he’s also made clear to business donors that, depending on how their corporation is structured, they may be barred from giving direct donations to candidates. Affected companies can get around the restriction by forming their own political action committee or by donating to one.

At least two of Stenger’s previous corporate donors — Anheuser-Busch and Central Bank — have contributed to a new political action committee called STL Citizens for Responsible Government. That PAC recently gave $15,000 dollars to Stenger. Such donations are legal under Amendment 2.

Stenger said he knew nothing about the new PAC until his campaign received the donation check.

Democratic consultant Mike Kelley is an advisor to STL Citizens for Responsible Government . “It is a regional governance PAC and it would likely give money to candidates in the St. Louis region,” he said.

Kelley emphasized that the PAC will be giving to other candidates besides Stenger. He also noted that the PAC will be filing regular reports that will list all of its donors — and all of its donations.

That’s different from nonprofit political groups, such as the oneset up by allies of Gov. Eric Greitens, which do not have to disclose the source of their money or how they spend it.

The Missouri Ethics Commission has no way to track the growth of the nonprofit political groups, who don’t file any documents with the state. Most of them are known as 501(c)(4)s, which refers to a provision of the federal IRS code.

But the ethics commission is monitoring the explosion in regular PACs, which must file regular campaign-finance reports. Commission executive director James Klahr said that roughly 100 new PACs have been formed in the state just since the beginning of the year.

Most of those PACs have been set up to help legislative and statewide officials or candidates get around the $2,600 donation limits. Klahr emphasized that the PACs are to be independent of candidates’ campaigns. The PACs will run afoul of state campaign-finance laws if they are too closely aligned with candidates.

There is some leeway: The commission issued guidelines this week that say it’s OK for a candidate to help raise money for an outside PAC — or even appear at a PAC fundraising event.

But the guidelines warn that a Missouri PAC cannot “operate as a second candidate committee.” PACs also cannot collect money “from the general treasury of a corporation where the treasurer of the continuing committee/PAC treasurer is the spouse of a shareholder, board member, partner, executive officer” or other company official.

Stenger said he has no plans to set up close ties with any political action committee.

Follow Jo on Twitter:@jmannies

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