Campaign funds

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Last year, the Missouri Legislature passed a law that made wholesale changes in regulations concerning campaign contributions for candidates seeking statewide and legislative offices. Instead of imposing limits, which were widely ignored through the use of pass-through political committees, the new law emphasized full and timely reporting -- something we have been advocating for years.

But there was one section of last year's legislation that had previously run afoul of a legal challenge. That section prohibited candidates -- incumbents and newcomers alike -- seeking statewide and legislative offices from raising or accepting campaign donations during a legislative session. This year, for example, the ban on fund raising would have lasted from early January until mid-May.

In 1996, a ruling by U.S. District Judge Stephen Limbaugh struck down a law passed in 1994 by Missouri legislators that had the same constraints on fund raising during legislative sessions. Limbaugh said the ban infringed on free-speech rights.

In his recent ruling striking this portion of the new law, Cole County Circuit Judge Richard Callahan said it was "puzzling" that the legislature passed what was substantially the same contributions ban that had already failed to pass muster.

Area legislators said the ban wouldn't affect them one way or the other, because, they said, they don't have time for campaign fund raising during legislative session. But it's difficult to imagine that any politician, even one not actively campaigning, would turn down campaign contributions generously offered by backers.

Like all campaign contributions, the important thing is to keep track of political donations and make those records available to the public as quickly as possible. Taxpaying voters can make their own assessments of how contributions from influential donors might sway a politician.

While Judge Callahan's ruling temporarily allows political contributions during the session, it leaves the rest of last year's law intact -- for now. A March 2 hearing has been set for a lawsuit that seeks to have the entire law declared unconstitutional.

If the law is struck down, regulation of campaign contributions would revert to the previous law, its stifling limits and the endless end-runs by pass-through committees.

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