On the Trail: The political money pipeline now can flow through Missouri’s local officials

Feb 20, 2017
Originally published on February 21, 2017 12:06 am

St. Louis County Executive Steve Stenger’s political power just got a big boost, even if he wasn’t aware of it.

That’s because the Missouri Ethics Commission just declared that candidates can spend money on, say, political ads for or against other politicians as long as there’s no direct coordination with a campaign. Since municipal and county candidates can take donations of an unlimited size, they could be used as a pipeline to help or hurt other candidates.

In short, donors can funnel lots of money to local politicians like Stenger, who in turn can use the cash to assist his party’s legislative or statewide candidates.

“That’s not something that actually occurred to me,” Stenger said when asked about such a scenario. “I think you may be an evil genius.”

Local officials’ increased importance is on the radars of those who follow Missouri’s campaign finance laws. The lay of the fiduciary land is somewhat in flux since the passage of Amendment 2, which instituted donation limits for state legislative, judicial and statewide candidates.  

“The incentives are there that a candidate who already has the money, but doesn’t necessarily need it and wants to make friends within the wider party, would push their favorite candidate for some other office,” said Wally Siewert, the director of Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “That’s something that’s happening now, obviously – that campaign war chests get passed along if they end up being too heavy in the end.

“I think what the campaign finance reform does, one of those unintended side effects, is that it creates a bigger market for that,” he added. “There may be a deeper need for that.”

Still, neither Missouri Democratic Party Chairman Stephen Webber nor GOP Chairman Todd Graves are bullish about the power shift toward local candidates. Webber sees it as an  example of how Amendment 2 can be circumvented.

“Unfortunately there’s some major loopholes in Amendment 2 that allow unlimited money to move freely into the political system,” Webber said. “And so, by missing these loopholes, they’ve really failed to help deliver the government that Missourians deserve.”

(For what it’s worth, Todd Jones, a socially conservative political activist who helped draft the amendment, said he didn’t apply limits to local and county candidates because it may have required amending multiple parts of the state’s constitution.)

Graves sees broader ramifications, saying it makes everything “extremely complicated to deal with.”

“It creates an environment where to participate in the public debate, you better have a lawyer at your shoulder," he said. "And as a lawyer who does this kind of work, I can tell you that I can’t give solid advice on some of these issues – because it’s not clear.”

What now?

Even with the rare bipartisan consensus that Amendment 2 could be improved, doing just that may be tricky.

The GOP-controlled legislature will likely hold off on campaign finance-related bills as legal challenges to the amendment snake through the courts, according to House Speaker Todd Richardson.

Graves’ firm is seeking to invalidate the entire amendment, and others are targeting specific aspects of the new campaign finance system.

Even if Amendment 2 completely survives judicial scrutiny, altering major details of constitutional amendments would require another statewide vote. Whether the GOP-controlled Legislature, which abolished donation limits in the late 2000s, is willing to do that remains to be seen.

“The system we had previously was just truly awful,” Webber said. “Candidates were being referred to as being in the camps of billionaire donors. We have to find a way to change it. I think Amendment 2 was a well-intended attempt. … But whether it’s fixing those problems is unclear, but appearing increasingly unlikely.”

In any case, Stenger has not received any word from Democratic Party officials that his robust campaign account will be needed in next year’s midterms. He’ll probably need the money to help himself get re-elected, given that he beat the Republican opponent in 2014 by a slim margin.

But he doesn’t completely discount the idea that local officials could eventually gain politically, adding that this reporter “may turn everyone into evil geniuses.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics.

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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