JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — The big bucks are back in Missouri politics.
Missouri’s on-again, off-again campaign-contribution limits will be off effective Aug. 28 — giving candidates plenty of time to take in big checks for November’s general elections.
Gov. Matt Blunt on July 10 signed legislation (S.B. 1038) repealing the contribution limits — the second time he has done so in the past two election cycles.
A 2006 law also repealed Missouri’s campaign-contribution limits, effective Jan. 1, 2007. But after barely six months of unlimited fundraising, the Missouri Supreme Court struck down the repeal on procedural grounds and reinstated the limits.
Shortly after most of the major candidates had finished refunding their five- and six-figure checks, the Republican-led Legislature responded this year by again passing a bill repealing the limits.
To be specific: Individuals, businesses and political action committees will no longer be limited to giving $1,350 per election to statewide candidates, $675 to Senate candidates and $325 to House candidates. Candidates for federal offices still must abide by federal campaign-contribution limits.
Missouri voters overwhelmingly backed contribution limits in 1994. But the cost of Missouri’s major campaigns has continued to climb into the double-digit millions. To get around the limits, big donors routinely pass their contributions to candidates through various local political party committees, which have been allowed to provide roughly 20 times the amount of aid to candidates as individual contributors.
The Associated Press reported earlier this week that Democratic attorney general candidate Chris Koster has gone so far as to have his paid campaign staff personally coordinate, shuttle and flip checks among several committees to get the money to him. Koster contends that practice is typical and legal under Missouri Ethics Commission interpretations, though a former campaign staffer has expressed concerns that it may violate the law.
Koster is among those who supported a repeal of the contribution limits.
Blunt said Koster’s fundraising scenario “undermines the confidence in the process” and highlights the reason why the limits should be repealed.
“As I’ve said before when I signed similar legislation, I think that provides a more transparent process to Missourians as to who is funding campaigns,” Blunt said.
Unlike the 2006 law, the new one doesn’t stop political party committees from giving money to candidates, so donors still could pass money through various committees to obscure its original source. But they wouldn’t need to do so to get around contribution limits.
Blunt will not benefit personally from the unlimited fundraising. Although his campaign had raised millions of dollars, Blunt unexpectedly announced in January that he was not seeking re-election.
But the repeal of contribution limits could provide a significant benefit to the winner of the Aug. 5 Republican gubernatorial primary. Whereas Democratic Attorney General Jay Nixon faces no formidable opposition in the primary, state Treasurer Sarah Steelman and U.S. Rep. Kenny Hulshof have been waging a costly and intense battle in the Republican primary.
Without contribution limits, the Republican winner will more easily be able to replenish his or her campaign account for a matchup against the well-funded Nixon.
Nixon denounced the repeal of contributions limits, as he had done two years ago, and declared: “I would have vetoed this bill the moment it hit my desk.”
“I think it’s horrible public policy to get rid of campaign-contribution limits,” said Nixon, particularly because they originally were approved by voters and the change comes in the middle of an election.
Hulshof had said in February that if he were governor, he would sign the bill repealing the limits. But he said in April that his preference would be to keep contribution limits in place, albeit it at a higher level of $2,500 per election, while adding more public-disclosure requirements.
“A system with unlimited contributions with full disclosure is a much better system than the current one we have,” where pass-through contributions are common, Hulshof said July 11.
Steelman has said she is in favor of the state’s existing contribution limits.