The brouhaha over Ameren's campaign contributions that wound up in Attorney Jay Nixon's war chest as he mounts a campaign to unseat Gov. Matt Blunt in the 2008 elections is a prime example of why the campaign-contribution legislation awaiting the governor's signature is important.
Under current campaign-contribution laws which cap the amount that can be given, Nixon could not receive nearly $20,000 directly from a corporate contributor. But through a process that has been called legal laundering by both political parties, any donor could break up a large donation and parcel it out to several political committees, which would then forward the money to a candidate's campaign treasury.
Nixon says there is nothing improper about Ameren's contribution, but he announced last week that Ameren's donation would be returned. In addition, he says he won't step aside to let someone else investigate the failure of Ameren's Taum Sauk reservoir, which broke last year and caused extensive damage to Johnson's Shut-ins State Park.
Governor Blunt, during a visit to Cape Girardeau last week, said he also would continue to receive campaign money from political committees through the rest of this year, but he said he would sign a bill passed by this year's General Assembly. The bill, among other things, removes the cap on campaign contributions and prohibits contributions from political committees.
While most news reports about the Ameren contribution to Nixon have been tied to conflict-of-interest concerns, there are two separate issues.
One is the signal being sent by statewide candidates, including Nixon and Blunt, that it's OK to raise money using a contribution mechanism that will be illegal next Jan. 1.
The other is the ties both Nixon and Blunt have to Ameren, which provides electricity and natural gas to much of the eastern half of Missouri. Charting a political course that avoids every conflict-of-interest iceberg is all but impossible in this day of expensive campaigns that require millions of dollars.
Another component of the bill awaiting Blunt's signature is the speedy reporting of contributions and who made them. By eliminating the pass-through political committees, Missourians will have a better snapshot of who is paying the political bills. It will be up to the public to decide what constitutes undue influence or a conflict of interest.