Missouri Supreme Court declines to decide fund-raising refund issue

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- Political candidates who took large donations must wait until at least Thursday to know whether they must return the money following a Missouri Supreme Court decision to pass the issue to the Missouri Ethics Commission.

The Supreme Court, which reinstated Missouri's campaign contribution limits last month, issued a follow-up opinion Monday saying it could not decide whether candidates must refund money they received above the contribution limits.

The Ethics Commission, which enforces Missouri's campaign finance laws, had expected the Supreme Court to settle the matter, said commission executive director Robert Connor. The issue will be on the commission's agenda Thursday, Connor said, but he isn't certain whether a decision will be made. The case will be discussed in closed session because it deals with litigation, but any final decision must be made in a public vote.

"Now we have got to figure out what they told us," Connor said.

Local legislators will be watching closely for the commission's decision. State Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, has the most to lose among area lawmakers because his campaign, which has raised more than $110,000 for the 2008 election, would be forced to return $94,250.

Other area candidates, and the amounts they could be forced to return, include:

* House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, who has a committee to promote him as a statewide candidate, could be forced to return $41,622.

* Rep. Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, could be required to give $15,600 back to contributors.

* Rep. Scott Lipke, R-Jackson, raised $1,800 from contributions in excess of the $325 limit for House races. If Lipke pursues a Senate race against Crowell, his refund amount would be cut to $250.

* Rep. Billy Pat Wright, R-Dexter, could be forced to return $2,725.

* Rep. Ellen Brandom, R-Sikeston, received $1,025 in contributions exceeding the limit.

* Rep. Steve Hodges, D-East Prairie, may have to return $1,700.

* Michael Winder, a Democrat who is seeking the 156th District Missouri House seat, would have to give back $700.

In a statement issued soon after the court's decision, Attorney General Jay Nixon, a Democrat, said the court had adopted the Ethics Commission position that the ruling reinstating the limits should be applied retroactively. But Connor said the commission hasn't taken any stand on requiring refunds and will discuss the matter for the first time on Thursday as a response to the ruling.

Nixon, who defended the law, had argued in favor of requiring refunds. Nixon spokesman Scott Holste said Monday's ruling means the campaign contribution limits should be imposed retroactively "and clears the way for the Ethics Commission to order refunds."

Nixon represented the Ethics Commission in the suit. Asked about Connor's remarks that the commission had not taken a stand on refunds, Holste declined to comment, citing attorney-client privilege.

An order requiring refunds would force Nixon, who is running for governor. to return $1 million to contributors. Incumbent Gov. Matt Blunt, who will be trying to fend off Nixon's challenge, could have to refund almost $4 million raised above the reinstated campaign contribution limits during the first six months of 2007.

The court's actions involve a law that took effect Jan. 1 that repealed Missouri's individual campaign contribution limits while imposing a new blackout period on fund-raising during the legislative session, which runs from early January to mid-May.

A Cole County circuit judge upheld the removal of contribution limits but tossed out the ban on fund-raising during the session as a violation of free-speech rights. On July 19, the Supreme Court also struck down the repeal of the contribution limits.

The high court determined that legislators had linked the contribution limit repeal and blackout period and said both must fall because no one appealed the circuit judge's decision invalidating the blackout period.

The Supreme Court then asked for legal suggestions on whether its reinstatement of campaign contribution limits should apply only prospectively or also retroactively to Jan. 1, thus forcing refunds by political campaigns.

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