by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist

The time has come for a serious overhaul of Missouri’s election and campaign finance laws. And as I see it, there are three things that we need to change to have more democratic, transparent and responsive state government.

First, get rid of term limits for members of Missouri’s legislative branch. The original intent of term limits was to bust up the entrenched power in Jefferson City and reduce the unfair advantages of incumbency by creating more open races. The outcome would be more “citizen legislators” carrying the will of the people forward and then returning to private life. Think of George Washington living in Mount Pleasant instead of Mount Vernon.

However, term limits have done more harm to government than good. They have done nothing to reduce the advantage held by incumbents, have only accelerated the money race, have reduced the average tenure in the General Assembly to three years and have increased the influence of monied special interests in Jefferson City.

One of the most noted supporters of term limits, former Congressman Mel Hancock, now advocates abolishing term limits. “I was directly involved in the initiative petition drive to place the term limit amendment on the Missouri Constitution. I helped get signatures, raised money and campaigned for its passage. I was wrong,” Hancock wrote in a recent editorial.

Hancock continued: “My erroneous conclusion was that term-limited representatives would have to return to the private sector. They would then have to live with the laws they passed while they held public office. I failed to consider one major fault that was an unintended consequence. Due to the rapid increase in the number of government jobs, term limits created an atmosphere whereby elected representatives can pass laws arranging for their personal future income both in government and the private sector. They can create government jobs for after they leave office by passing special interest legislation, with a job in mind, while holding public office. They can even lobby for jobs as lobbyists. This is not only unethical, but also dangerous to the welfare of the taxpayers. … I regret my mistake.”

Term limits also go against the idea of democratically elected representatives. For example, from 1994 to 2002, Tim Harlan was my representative in the Missouri House. Harlan represented me and my values well in the General Assembly. Yet, when it came time to once again choose my representative in Jefferson City in November 2002, the state barred me from selecting Harlan to serve as my representative just because he had served in that capacity in previous years. Why can’t I vote for the person whom I want to represent me?

Second, do away with campaign contribution limits but increase the reporting requirements. Money seems to always find its way into a campaign, and perpetuating Missouri’s system of loopholes and legal money laundering does nothing to reduce contributions or spending. Instead, it conceals who is giving money to whom. We should allow unlimited contributions from individuals but require that all contributions more than $200 be reported electronically within 24 hours after receipt. PACs should also be made to adhere to the same reporting requirements so that any money passing through a PAC can be quickly traced to its source.

Third, we need a voluntary system for the public financing of elections, a so-called “Clean Elections Law” that candidates can choose to use to fund their campaigns. Maine and Arizona have had such a system of public campaign funding for nearly a decade, and several other states are starting to implement some form of public campaign funding.

Here’s how it might work: A candidate who wants to publicly fund his campaign would first get a number of constituents to make $5 donations to the campaign. These qualifying contributions are to make sure the candidate has enough support to be viable and keep wacko candidates from getting public funding each time they file for a race. A candidate for state representative might be required to get 210 people to donate $5 each. A gubernatorial candidate might be required to get 4,200 $5 donations.

After they have qualified, candidates would receive an initial amount of funding for their campaign, based on an average cost of that type of campaign and adjusted over time for inflation. Figure $20,000 for a state representative and $500,000 for a statewide office. A public financing system could be funded by a surcharge on traffic tickets. So if you don’t want to contribute your money to public campaign financing, obey the traffic laws.

Candidates who didn’t want to receive public funding would have to adhere to the more intense reporting requirements when receiving private contributions. However, if a candidate who is privately financing his campaign raises a lot more money than a publicly financed candidate, then the publicly financed candidate could receive additional funds to catch up to his opponent.

Many people assume that public campaign financing is a policy destined to benefit liberals, who are believed to be less plugged in to the sources of private money than their conservative opponents. But the evidence from states that have public financing doesn’t support this assumption. In Arizona, for example, the voters elected a more conservative legislature after public financing was implemented, reflecting the values and viewpoints of that state’s voters.

In Missouri, a public funding system would allow our candidates to get off the fundraising treadmill and spend more time listening to their constituents. This would also make running for office more attractive to good potential candidates.

Conventional wisdom says that election reform can’t happen during an election year, but I think Missourians are sick and tired of the way campaigns are run and would vote for a candidate who was willing to make reforming our election laws a central theme of his campaign. Let’s hope that there are courageous officeholders and candidates who are willing to take on this issue in 2008.