Ruling may cost Crowell thousands

Sunday, July 22, 2007

State Sen. Jason Crowell has amassed a campaign war chest of more than $111,000 for the 2008 election, but he could lose almost the entire amount if the Missouri Supreme Court rules the contributions aren't legal.

The high court Thursday tossed out the new law allowing candidates to accept unlimited contributions for their campaigns, reinstating restrictive limits that had been in place since the 1990s. On Aug. 3, attorneys will present arguments on whether the dozens of candidates who accepted large donations must return the portion that exceeds contribution limits.

Like Crowell, every area lawmaker would be forced to refund some of the contributions they have received since Jan. 1, when the law began allowing unrestricted donations. But Crowell, who has accepted only 10 campaign contributions since Jan. 1, would be forced to return money to every donor and lose $94,250 -- 85 percent of his campaign treasury.

Crowell was philosophical Friday about the potential impact on his campaign treasury. "I will follow whatever the Supreme Court finally decides," he said.

The largest single refund check Crowell's campaign would have to write would go to Rex Sinquefield, president of the Show-Me Institute, a think tank that has pushed ideas such as eliminating the state income tax and vouchers for public school children to attend private schools. Sinquefield gave Crowell $40,000. If the court orders refunds, Crowell would have to return $39,350.

Sinquefield gave the money, Crowell said, because they share similar views. "I talked and met with all these individuals," Crowell said. "They support me just like my opponents have their supporters."

Receiving $40,000 from Sinquefield is no different than an opponent receiving smaller contributions from several locals of the same union, Crowell said. "They get nothing," he said. "They support the job we are doing in the General Assembly."

The contribution limits reinstated by the court are $325 for state House candidates, $650 for state Senate candidates and $1,275 for candidates seeking statewide offices.

For other area lawmakers, the amounts aren't as large. In some cases, however, the refund amount could represent all or most of their available cash. The refund amounts for area legislators include:

* House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, can't run for re-election because of term limits, but he has a campaign committee actively raising money for a potential statewide race. Jetton would be forced to refund $41,622, including $23,725 to Sinquefield. The refunds would exceed Jetton's available cash by more than $9,000. Jetton said in an interview last month that he has decided against running for office next year and will concentrate on his political consulting business instead.

* Rep. Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, would be forced to return $15,600. That amount exceeds his cash on hand by $1,306. Tilley, who is seeking to become House Republican leader, made $23,155 in contributions to other candidates, so it is likely he would receive refunds that would allow him to pay back contributors.

* Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson and mentioned as a possible opponent for Crowell in the 2008 Senate primary, would have to return $1,800 if he seeks re-election to the House. Higher contribution limits for Senate races would reduce the refund amount to $250 should he choose to run. Lipke could not be reached for comment.

* Rep. Nathan Cooper, R-Cape Girardeau, would have to refund $13,775 to 33 contributors, a little more than one-third of his campaign treasury.

* Rep. Billy Pat Wright, R-Dexter, would have to give back $2,725 to seven contributors, also about one-third of his cash in the bank.

* Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, would have to return $1,025.

* Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, would have to return $1,700. Hodges reported having $568 in his campaign account June 30.

* Michael Winder, a Democrat who lost to Jetton in 2006 and is again seeking the 156th District seat, would have to return $700, or about half of his available cash.

The arguments over whether the contributions should be refunded aren't likely to alter the fund-raising totals much in the end, Cooper said Saturday. Cooper said he supports unlimited donations with full disclosure over the previous system that limited donations to candidates but allowed unlimited contributions to political party committees. Until the new law took effect, political party committees across the state were taking large donations and passing them on to candidates because the party groups could give 10 times the amount individual donors were allowed.

"A series of arcane rules and limits only makes it harder for the public to figure out where the money came from," Cooper said. "People who have money who want to contribute to the political process will contribute in other ways, which will be much harder for the public to see."

The portion of the law allowing unlimited donations that was ruled invalid also set strict limits on the donations by political party committees. By reinstating the limits on donations, the court also reinstated the ability of political party committees to give large donations.

"The people who have given the money will give in other ways and the people who want to give to someone else will find the avenue," Cooper said.

335-6611, extension 126

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