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Court affirms major blow to Missouri amendment restricting campaign donations

Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio

A federal appeals court ruled Monday that Missouri can’t prevent any political action committee from donating to another political action committee.

The decision from the 8th District Court of Appeals could make it permanently more difficult to track the true source of donations to PACs — entities that have become much more powerful since the passage of campaign donation limits.

At issue is a constitutional Amendment 2, which Missouri voters approved overwhelmingly in 2016. The amendment placed caps on the size of donations to certain Missouri candidates — and barred political action committees from donating to other political action committees. The idea behind this prohibition was to prevent a PAC from hiding donations.

But a federal court struck down the PAC-to-PAC prohibition in 2017. And the 8th District ruled on Monday that the measure violated the First Amendment of the Constitution.

“The transfer ban also is not closely drawn to serve an important state interest,"  the decision states. "Although the fit between the interest served and the means selected need not be perfect, it must be reasonable, with the means selected proportionate to the interest served. In this case, the risk of corruption from PAC-to-PAC transfers is modest at best, and other regulations like contribution limits and disclosure requirements act as prophylactic measures against quid pro quo corruption.”

The decision went on to state that “assessing the fit of a proposed restriction requires consideration of available alternatives that would serve the State’s interests while avoiding unnecessary abridgment of First Amendment rights.”

“Taken together, the low risk of quid pro quo corruption stemming from PAC-to-PAC transfers, the existence of other campaign finance laws that facilitate transparency, and the availability of less restrictive alternatives to the ban suffice to show that [the PAC-to-PAC ban] is not closely drawn to serve a sufficiently important state interest,” decision states.

Mary Compton, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Josh Hawley, said in an e-mail “we are reviewing the ruling and determining our next steps.”

The decision is notable because PACs have become much more powerful since Amendment 2’s passage. Since candidates for office are allowed to raise money for PACs, it’s possible now for large donors to give to outside groups — and for those entities to spend lots of money to support or oppose someone. Monday’s decision will almost certainly continue the practice of shuffling money between PACs.

Some political action committees to help candidates and ballot initiatives have also received large donations from 501(c)(4)s, politically-active nonprofit groups that have become prevalent over the past few years.

A ballot measure known as Clean Missouri would make some changes to Missouri’s campaign finance law. But it wouldn’t do much to halt the large flow of money to PACs — or prevent them from spending money to influence Missouri politics.

Monday’s decision keeps other aspects of Amendment 2 in place, including a $2,600-per-election donation limit for state legislative, statewide and judicial candidates.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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