Blunt says campaign finance law permits two-day 'fund-raising frenzy'

Monday, December 11, 2006

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- There will be a brief opportunity in a few weeks for lawmakers and statewide officials -- or hopefuls -- to begin using a new campaign finance law that allows unlimited contributions to candidates.

So far no one is admitting to it, but there's a possibility of a two-day "fund-raising frenzy," as Gov. Matt Blunt put it.

Legislators rewrote Missouri's campaign finance law earlier this year, removing individual campaign contribution limits in favor of a new ban on cash aid to candidates from political parties.

Supporters argue this will help the public more easily trace who's funding political campaigns, but opponents say dropping the limits just adds to the impression that politicians can be bought.

The law takes effect Jan. 1, so it wouldn't affect the recently completed election season. One provision also bars legislators and statewide candidates from raising money during the legislative session, which next year runs from Jan. 3 until May 18.

Window of opportunity

That provides a slim window of opportunity to test how unlimited fund-raising can work.

Republican Gov. Matt Blunt said in late November that he would instead abide by the old law's contribution limits during that two-day window in January and encouraged others to follow suit.

The campaign for Attorney General Jay Nixon, who's making a run for governor in 2008, did not respond to questions about his fund-raising plans. A spokesman in his office has declined to comment on the matter.

Lobbyist Richard McIntosh says he's not getting fund-raising invitations or requests to take advantage of that window -- yet. But he is hearing from officials hoping to raise money before the legislative session ban kicks in.

"Most of my clients are just tapped from the last election cycle," he said. "The last phone call I want to make is 'Gee, don't you want to give an unlimited amount of money to politicians?' That's not the phone call I want to be making in January, I want to be discussing policy matters."

But some Democrats say that while they haven't determined whether to accept unlimited money in that time, Blunt's holding back really doesn't mean much if he plans to operate without donation limits starting in May anyway, especially as the next general election is nearly two years away.

"If the governor's not going to take unlimited contributions for two days, he ought to be consistent and not do it after session either," said Sen. Chuck Graham of Columbia, who led Senate Democrats' campaign effort this year. "That's a nice PR trick but I don't see him abiding by the old limit after session. If he believes in the limits, he should've vetoed the bill."

Limits lessened

At the same time, Graham said, now that campaign finance laws have changed, Democrats won't restrict themselves to the limits either, though he opposed the changes.

"I don't think anybody's going to go into fund-raising season tying both their arms behind their back," he said. "I would imagine most people are going to want to make sure they're on the same playing field as the other side."

As such, Graham doesn't see much distinction in which day on the calendar politicians open the fund-raising floodgates.

"Whether you take larger contributions on Jan. 1 or 2 doesn't make any more difference than if you take them on May 18 or 19," he said.

If Republicans bow to the governor's direction and avoid massive fund-raising in early January, it could provide an opportunity for Democrats, who often complain that the GOP outraises and outspends them in campaigns.

But Graham says he's unaware of any coordinated fund-raising plans at this point, though individual members could solicit -- and certainly accept -- larger contributions in that time.

Blunt acknowledges he will raise money using the new standards starting in May, but said that doing so in January would send the wrong message.

"A two and a half day window right before the legislative session would have an appearance of some sort of fund-raising frenzy, which I don't think is healthy as we go into the 2007 legislative session," he said. "There will be plenty of opportunities when the session's over to raise funds."

If other politicians follow his lead, it could be several months yet before the impact of the new free-for-all fund-raising philosophy becomes evident.

Newswoman Kelly Wiese covers state government and politics for The Associated Press.

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