by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

In Sunday’s Tribune, an article by Jason Rosenbaum outlined the gifts, meals and other perks state legislators regularly receive from Capitol lobbyists while the General Assembly is in session. The total spent by lobbyists is impressive. The gifts buy access – legislators are a captive audience while eating a free dinner or watching a Cardinals game from a Skybox. It’s smart politics on the part of the lobbyists and the modus operandi of our state legislature.

Though free meals and game tickets buy access, they certainly don’t buy votes. The public might frown on those who accept the gifts, but I would trust just about any legislator in Jefferson City to be able to receive these perks and still feel comfortable voting against his or her benefactor when the time came. Democracy is not corrupted by the hundreds of dollars given directly to legislators in the form of meals, game tickets or other gifts. That is a red herring. The real problem is the hundreds of thousands of dollars lobbyists and their interests give to the election campaigns.

Imagine you are in the General Assembly and know you will have to raise between $100,000 and $700,000 for your next re-election campaign. Can you afford to vote against a special interest that says it “wants to support you” and has access to that type of cash? Few legislators could afford to vote against such a well-funded special interest, especially if the legislator wants to seek statewide office. And even the most good-hearted lawmaker can rationalize taking the money: If he doesn’t retain his seat in the legislature, he can’t do any good work.

All candidates – incumbent and challenger alike – are restricted from raising money while the General Assembly is in session. After May 18, the ban on fundraising will be lifted, and for the first time in a long time candidates will be able to directly accept unlimited campaign contributions. Although many are outraged by the concept of unlimited contributions, it might actually give us greater insight into whose votes are being bought and what the sale price was.

Before this year, the amount an individual could give to a candidate was restricted, but political committees were allowed to give as much as 10 times the individual limit. This provided a loophole that allowed a person to give enormous amounts to a candidate by simply running the money through one or more political committees. So for all practical purposes, there really have never been any contribution limits for state candidates. The laundering of money through political committees also had the effect of making it nearly impossible to track campaign donations; only the candidate and the donor truly knew of the transaction.

This shell game of moving money through political committees has ended. However, donors can still transfer money between various political action committees to hide where the money is coming from. I hope this doesn’t happen. It would be nice to be able to look at the campaign finance reports and for once be able to figure out what special interests are funding an officeholder’s campaigns.

Right now, state legislators are at the mercy of a system that forces them to take large contributions from powerful interests to win their seats in the state assembly. In exchange for their passage into the halls of power, most legislators enter into a system of indentured servitude to the moneyed special interests in Jefferson City.

Limiting the lunches, event tickets and other small perks would have little effect in fixing this system. If we want real change, we need to provide some alternative form of campaign financing for officeholders. Voluntary public financing of campaigns, known as Clean Elections, is taking off in several other states. Maine, Arizona, New Mexico, North Carolina, New Jersey, Vermont and Connecticut all have some form of public financing available to candidates.

Public financing provides a way for officeholders to break the chains of the moneyed special interests and return to representing the interests of their constituents. Such a system will not come about on its own and will not be easy to enact – the lobbyists in Jefferson City know how to work the system and enjoy having our representatives in their pockets – but it is the only way to restore representative democracy.