by J Scott Christianson, Columbia Daily Tribune Columnist
In the waning hours of this past session of the Missouri General Assembly, a bill was passed to once again remove campaign contribution limits. Such legislation had been previously enacted in 2007, only to be overturned because of the way it was implemented.
This year the legal problems with removing contribution limits seem to have been resolved, and the current limits will be removed starting in August, after the primary election. Removing such limits is not an unreasonable step toward more transparency in our political system. Current contribution limits can be circumvented by passing large contributions through political committees that can give 10 times what individuals can contribute to any given candidate. This “wink-and-nod” system of legalized money laundering makes it hard for anyone to track exactly who is giving money to particular candidates. And with hundreds of committees through which contributions can be directed, a billionaire or millionaire can move essentially unlimited amounts of money to the candidate of their choice.
This is not to say that large donors are necessarily concerned about hiding their identities. When the contribution limits were reimposed in 2007, one wealthy donor, Rex Sinquefield, decided he didn’t want to rely on the somewhat parochial county and legislative district committees to move his millions to his candidates. So Sinquefield set up more than 100 political action committees to more effectively direct money to the candidates who were willing to support his positions. In 2007 and 2008, Sinquefield sent several million dollars through his PACs to candidates who agreed with his policies on directing public school money to private schools and opposing income taxes and the minimum wage.
Many Democratic candidates have attacked the Republican leaders of the General Assembly for removing campaign limits. Unfortunately, only a handful have been able to resist taking money from large contributors via political committees, leaving them in the hypocritical situation of deriding the influence of big contributors while taking large contributions themselves.
The fact is that our current campaign finance system has left the candidates and their political parties locked in a cold war of sorts when it comes to large contributions. While there are those in each party who are appalled by the influence of money in our political system, neither side feels it can stop accepting large contributions without giving the other side an advantage. Just tweaking the current system will not lessen big money’s influence in our elections. What we need is an alternative system that will give candidates the ability to refuse large contributions without handing the election to their opponents.
Several states have already developed such alternatives in the form of voluntary public campaign finance systems that allow candidates to get off the “fundraising treadmill” and focus on issues that matter to their constituents. Rather than mandate public financing for all candidates, the public financing systems in states such as Arizona and Maine are strictly voluntary. Candidates may choose to either finance their campaigns with private contributions or participate in the public system.
In these systems, when a candidate accepts public financing, he or she agrees to forgo any private contributions. However, candidates in the public finance system are assured that their campaign will have enough public funds to match their opponent’s campaign even if their opponent if privately financed. Thus there is little incentive for candidates to continue to raise money from private donors. Moreover, these systems are funded by a surcharge on traffic tickets, which avoids the problem of directing tax dollars to political campaigns. If you don’t want your money going to political campaigns, then don’t speed!
By providing an alternative funding mechanism for political campaigns, Arizona and Maine have given their candidates the chance to spend their time listening to voters instead of courting donors. Until we have such an alternative for our candidates in Missouri, we can be assured that big money will make its way into political campaigns regardless of any contribution limits. And as long as this system of mutually assured corruption continues, the priorities for our state government will be set by those with money to spend.