Reforming campaign finance in Missouri

A friend of mine lobbied for campaign finance reform in Missouri for more than a dozen  years. He finally gave up in  2000, when after all those years of trying, he and a coalition of progressive organizations managed to get a proposition on the statewide ballot that would have enabled publicly financed elections in Missouri, only to watch it go down to defeat by  a margin of 65% to 35%. A previous measure, which would have placed limits on campaign contributions, actually passed by an even bigger margin in 1994. But it didn’t stick.  Most recently, in 2008, the Missouri legislature passed a bill repealing contribution limits. So, currently, Missouri is the only state the allows lawmakers to accept both unlimited gifts from lobbyists and unlimited campaign donations.

Fortunately, good ideas like campaign finance reform don’t die, and my friend can take hope from a new group of Democratic legislators who want to push for change: A Missouri Democratic state representative is  pre-filing a bill in the 2013 Missouri legislature that would–hallelujah–reform campaign finance. It’s an uphill battle, to be sure, and, although I haven’t spoken to my friend about this, I wouldn’t be surprised if he expressed cynicism about the bill’s chances in an overwhelmingly conservative-dominated Missouri legislature. And it’s definitely not publicly financed elections. But before we give up before we even start, let’s take a look at what this go-round offers.

The big news is that, under the proposed law, no donor could give a candidate for the state legislature or statewide office more than $5,000 per election, and a $1,ooo annual cap would be placed on gifts from lobbyists to individual legislators. That provision, alone, would at minimum pull Missouri back from its extreme–and sole–position among the rest of the states.

Also, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the proposed law would change Missouri campaign finance and ethics rules in several other ways:

“Sham nonprofits” set up to funnel money to campaigns would be required to disclose their donors.

Legislators could not work as paid political consultants while in office and would have to wait two years after leaving office to become lobbyists.

Candidates could invest their campaign treasuries only in interest-bearing checking or savings accounts, a move aimed at former Republican House Speaker Steve Tilley’s use of campaign funds to purchase shares in a bank.

The Missouri Ethics Commission’s powers to initiate investigations would be strengthened.

Missouri Republican leaders have been consistently opposed to caps on contributions, claiming that unlimited contributions are more transparent. That point deserves debate. But the make-up of the Missouri legislature will make it difficult for this bill to even get a hearing, let alone a vote on the floor. Republican House Speaker Steve Tilley has already stated that campaign-finance reform is not among his top priorities. Surprise! [And, by the way, just since I started writing this post, we’ve learned that Missouri’s Republican legislative leaders are countering with a campaign/ethics reform bill of their own–one that doesn’t even mention contribution limits, it should be noted.]

The contribution-limit bill’s Democratic sponsors say that, if put to a vote of the people today, their ideas would receive overwhelming popular support. They’re even suggesting that, should the legislature turn down their bill, they’d like to turn it into a statewide ballot initiative. Try. Try again. Repeat.

In light of  the bad press and negative  reception among voters given to the excessive spending of the 2012 election–on all levels–these guys may be onto something. Maybe campaign finance reform is an idea whose time has come–again. [I know, we all said that in the 1970s, and in the 1980s, and even in the 1990s, too. Sigh.] But it’s heartening to see a new generation [sure, call them cockeyed idealists if you must] want to keep this issue alive and try to make some progress. A lot of the biggest issues we’ve faced have taken generations to resolve.

I move for a round of applause.