Money talks, ethics walk

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

By Jay Nixon

In 1994, Missouri voters gave overwhelming approval to a law that put a limit on campaign contributions. This vote sent a clear message that Missourians felt limits were appropriate to control the corrupting influence of money on government.

When Missouri's limits were challenged, I successfully defended them before the U.S. Supreme Court. The decision in Nixon v. Shrink cleared the way for campaign-finance reform in other states and reaffirmed that government is entitled to enact limits to prevent corruption and the perception of corruption.

The will of 74 percent of Missourians will be undone, however, if Gov. Matt Blunt signs into law House Bill 1900, which passed before the end of the legislative session. This bill removes all limits on campaign contributions to candidates by individuals and by committees not affiliated with political parties.

It also removes any limits on noncash contributions by political party committees, opening the door for those committees to pay in unlimited amounts for advertising, bumper stickers or anything else for a candidate, so long as the committees provide in-kind goods or services and not a direct check to the candidate.

The public has been given the pretense that this bill promotes transparency. In fact, it does just the opposite by preserving the opportunity to move funds in obscurity.

There are other reasons why the governor should show his respect for Missouri voters and a true commitment to ethics in government by vetoing this bill.

The bill creates a blackout period for 15 days prior to an election in which no complaints can be filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission -- an open season for ethics violations for candidates. I don't believe most reasonable Missourians concerned about honest elections would seriously entertain the idea that this provides for more ethical standards.

This bill also helps protect incumbent candidates by barring both challengers and incumbents from accepting contributions during the legislative session of almost five months every year.

This gives declared candidates, who have already been raising money, a big advantage over someone who enters a race later. Similar language to protect incumbent candidates that was passed by the General Assembly in the 1990s has already been found to be unconstitutional.

These provisions were added in the last few days of the legislative session, and the public was not given the benefit of hearings on them.

I have urged Governor Blunt to veto this bill. It would set Missouri back to a time of unaccountability and behind-the-scenes movement of money.

Jay Nixon is Missouri's attorney general.

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