Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Lobbyist Money Help
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL154.PRB - Complexities of Controlling Special Interest Money«MDNM»
I heard the other day one of the more profound public acknowledgements of a mistake.
It came from Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg, during Senate debate on a measure to impose new restrictions on lobbying.
Pearce talked about his vote seven years ago to repeal voter-approved limits on campaign contributions.
"I've had about 24,000 votes since I've been the legislature. I can honestly say, honestly say that was the worst vote I've ever taken in the legislature."
Pearce's concession reminded me of the troubled history of efforts in Missouri to control special interest money flowing into government and politics.
Sen. Rob Schaaf has called the resulting current system of no limits on campaign contributions or lobbyist spending "institutional corruption."
The St. Joseph Republican thinks it will require an initiative petition campaign going around the legislature for any meaningful change.
That's what it took the first time Missouri imposed disclosure requirements on campaign contributions. It was in the 1970s when it was like the wild west for special interests.
There were no requirements for disclosure of campaign contributions. The money flowing into politics was secret.
Further, there were no requirements for lobbyists to disclose how much they were funneling to the government officials they were trying to influence.
When Kit Bond became governor in 1973, he sought to change that. But he got nowhere with the legislature.
So, supporters launched an initiative petition campaign to put the issue on the ballot.
It passed by a 78 percent majority.
Yet, within a few years, major provisions had been struck down by the courts.
Eventually, the legislature did adopt disclosure laws, but without limits on how much could be spent.
So, another initiative petition was launched to impose limits on how much any one individual, organization or business could contribute to a political candidate.
It too passed by an overwhelming majority of 74 percent in 1994.
But the legislature raised the limits and little more than a decade later, simply repealed the limits entirely.
Repeal supporters argued the limits failed because special interests found ways to get around the restrictions.
Their point vividly was demonstrated after the state Supreme Court struck down the legislature's action, putting the limits back in place.
During the short time before the legislature could pass another repeal of contribution limits, retired financier Rex Sinquefield set up dozens of separate committees to funnel money to Chris Koster in his campaign for attorney general.
Each committee's contribution was within the legal limit, the total that went into Koster's campaign from Sinquefield was magnitudes above the limit.
Compounding the difficulty in controlling special interest money in politics is a U.S. Supreme Court decision holding that an organization can spend as much as it wants for or against a candidate so long as there's no coordination with the candidate.
The argument that contribution limits had failed was made by Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey in response to Pearce.
"At the federal level, they have very strict contribution limits.
Has it taken money out of politics? No. It's just become more obscure as to who is actually working against an issue or candidate."
Dempsey spoke from a unique position. Back in 2008, he was the only GOP senator to vote against repealing the limits.
I understood Dempsey's point. As a reporter during the era of contribution limits, it was far more difficult to identify the major special interests financing a candidate.
This year, supporters of limits are offering new approaches to close the loopholes that have been used in the past.
But that Dempsey and Pearce spoke in such contradiction to their votes of just seven years earlier helps demonstrate the complexities lawmakers face with this issue.
Court decisions, First Amendment free speech rights, the craftiness of well-financed special interests, public expectations and the inherent conflicts of legislators voting on issues that will affect their own campaigns all combine to make this an exceedingly difficult issue.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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