Missourians last November overwhelmingly voted to get big money out of state elections. Not quite a year later, politicians and special interests have responded: Too bad. We like things the way they are.
Big money already is flowing into state legislative races that are still 12 months away. It’s just taking a more circuitous path, dumped into political action committees that shuffle money among themselves. The PACs are supposed to have limited coordination with the candidates’ official campaign committees, but that rule is almost impossible for the understaffed Missouri Ethics Commission to enforce.
Amendment 2 on last November’s ballot passed with 70 percent of the vote. It limited individual contributions to candidates for state and judicial offices to no more than $2,600 per election. It prohibited corporations and labor unions from making direct contributions to candidates. It prohibited committees from transferring money among themselves, a tactic often used to disguise the source of a candidate’s support.
Opponents predicted that it wouldn’t survive a court challenge. They were right; in May a federal judge threw out most of the law except for the $2,600 individual limits. That simply rerouted money into PACs. Between January and Oct. 15, the last quarterly campaign finance reporting date, some 105 new PACs were created by politicians and special interests thumbing their noses at the voters’ will.
“The thing is now Swiss cheese,” chortled Todd Graves after Judge Ortrie Smith’s ruling in May. Graves, the brother of U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Tarkio, is Republican state chairman. His law firm represented the plaintiffs in the case.
Money in politics, like water on concrete, always finds a crack. Nonetheless, a union-backed group called Clean Missouri already is circulating petitions to put the issue back before voters in November 2018 as part of a comprehensive ethics reform package.
Until then, the effect of Amendment 2 will be to make the question of who’s paying for whose campaign more opaque than ever. Political action committees must disclose their donors’ names, but they often turn out to be other committees.
A preview of what’s to come can be seen in a special election to be held Nov. 7 to fill a vacant state Senate seat in suburban Kansas City. Republican state Rep. Mike Cierpiot of Lee’s Summit is facing Democrat Hillary Shields and Jacob Turk, a disgruntled Republican running as an independent.
Cierpiot got a six-figure donation from something called the Missouri Alliance for Freedom-Grace River, which got a six-figure check from something called the Liberty Alliance, which got a $350,000 check in August from something called the American Democracy Alliance, which is a 501( c )4 dark money organization that doesn’t have to disclose its donors.
This is the sort of thing Missouri voters clearly wanted to end. Looks like they’ll need to keep trying.