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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.

St. Louis County Council looks into the wisdom, and practicality, of campaign donation limits

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger confers with Councilman Pat Dolan at a Dec. 19, 2017, meeting of the St. Louis County Council.
File Photo | Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger confers with Councilman Pat Dolan at a Dec. 19, 2017, meeting of the St. Louis County Council.

Missouri’s recently-enacted donation limits don’t affect county and municipal candidates, which means contenders for, say, the St. Louis County Council or county executive’s office can take contributions of unlimited size.

That could change, if some members of the council get their way.

County Council chairman Sam Page said his colleagues could soon debate whether to enact donation limits for county-based candidates. St. Louis and Kansas City instituted contribution limits of their own a number of years ago.

“I think we’ll talk about it. Whether or not we see a bill this year, I don’t know,” said Page, adding that Councilman Ernie Trakas, R-Oakville, is interested in the issue. “I think he has a lot of campaign finance ideas, and he needs to package them together and bring them forward. But I think it would be a good discussion to have.”

Because municipal and county candidates don’t have to abide by state contribution limits, it’s possible for those campaign committees to take in huge amounts of money that could pay for ads to help or hurt other candidates. The lack of local limits also made it possible for St. Louis County Executive Steve Stengerto take in more donations of more than $5,000 than any other elected official in the state.

Page said contribution limits could reduce the appearance of impropriety in county government. At least one potential County Council member, Republican Tim Fitch, believes the unlimited system exacerbates conflicts between Stenger and the council.

“I think at this point, contribution limits for county elected officials would be something that we should strongly consider,” Page said.

'The Gregory F.X. Daly Paradox'

Gregory F.X .Daly, collector of revenue, speaks at a campaign rally for Lyda Krewson in February 2017.
Credit File photo I Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
St. Louis Collector of Revenue Gregory F.X. Daly speaks at a campaign rally for then-mayoral candidate Lyda Krewson in February 2017.

In a statement to St. Louis Public Radio, Stenger said he would “welcome a discussion about campaign donation limits.”

But there’s some precedent showing that officeholders like Stenger could actually benefit from such a move — depending on how council members end up structuring the limits.

When St. Louis aldermen debated contribution limits a few years ago, some skeptics brought up the fact that strict limits could give incumbents a big advantage if they’ve already amassed a large campaign treasury. For instance: St. Louis Collector of Revenue Gregory F.X. Daly has nearly $600,000 of cash on hand — which, had the city adopted low contribution limits, may make it easier for him to run for another office. (Ultimately, aldermen approved a law allowing candidates to take up to $10,000 from a donor — a much higher limit than the $2,600 per election ceiling for state-based candidates.)

Stenger has more than $2.4 million of cash on hand — some of which he’ll use in his bid for re-election. But if the Democratic official wins and has lots of money left over, it may be difficult for any of his opponents to catch up with him in subsequent elections.

Councilman Mark Harder put forth another structural issue with donation limits: Big contributors can get around them with ease.

“The devil’s in the details,” said Harder, R-Ballwin. “I think we’ve got to look at how that would be managed in these races. We saw how the voters voted statewide this past election dealing with money in the state. I don’t know if that corrected the problem. I think it spread the problem around.”

Harder went onto say that donors often circumvent contribution limits by giving to political action committees, which has occurred with regularity since the state limits went into effect. “So now, it makes it even, I think, a lot harder to track going forward — which defeats the purpose of the original intent of the legislation,” he said.

For his part, Page acknowledged that political action committees that can take unlimited amounts of money present challenges for donation limits. But he added that “you at least have to try.”

“The argument against campaign contribution limits is you have the transparency and you see where the money’s going. I think there’s some truth to that,” he said. “But with the PACs, it’s usually pretty clear who the PAC is affiliated with or who the PAC is there to support. So I think there is transparency even when funds flow to a political action committee.”

Of course, this debate among County Council members could become moot if the Missouri General Assembly decides to place contribution caps on all municipal and county candidates. House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said last month that there was interest within his caucus of passing such a measure.

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.