Herald-Whig View

With court ruling, Missouri Legislature should act on campaign finance

Posted: Nov. 7, 2017 10:05 am

MISSOURI voters who overwhelmingly supported limits on campaign contributions last year will find that they have more work to do.

Amendment 2, approved with 70 percent of the vote last November, limited individual contributions to candidates for state and judicial offices to no more than $2,600 per election.

It also prohibited corporations and labor unions from making direct contributions to candidates, and political action committees (better known as PACs) from transferring money among themselves -- a tactic often used to disguise the source of a candidate's support.

Opponents of the law, along with many who support campaign finance reform, predicted that it wouldn't survive a court challenge. The amendment was "a poorly crafted overreach," as noted in a Herald-Whig pre-election editorial that urged lawmakers to write a bill that could withstand legal challenges.

As predicted, a federal judge ruled in May that the law was too broad. The only thing that remains is a $2,600 limit on individual donations.

Wealthy individuals and organizations simply have been sending their money to PACs. Between January and Oct. 15, some 105 new PACs were created by politicians and special interests in Missouri. Huge piles of campaign cash have been exchanged between a variety of PACs, making it nearly impossible to determine who donated much of the money.

This should not come as a surprise. Missouri has a terrible track record with campaign finance reform.

Voters approved contribution limits in 1994 by a nearly 3-to-1 margin, but the Legislature eliminated them in 2008, leading to the rise of megadonors who have contributed millions to candidates and initiatives.

When Amendment 2 came up for a vote last year, Missouri was one of a handful of states without limits on campaign donations. Now it has a campaign limit of $2,600 that doesn't do much because contributions to PACs are not capped.

Contributions to candidates running to fill a vacant state Senate seat in suburban Kansas City show how ineffective the law is. A six-figure donation that started out in a dark money 501(c)4 organization has been shuffled through two PACs before landing in a candidate's campaign fund.

Petitions for a new ballot initiative to eliminate the loophole already are circulating and could be decided by voters next November. That's better than nothing, but it would be better if lawmakers dealt with campaign finance limits on political action committees through legislation, rather than as constitutional amendments.

Most Missourians see the need to rein in exorbitant spending and reduce the influence of big money in political campaigns. Voters need to make sure members in the Missouri House and Senate know that should be a priority and demand meaningful legislation.