Senate ethics panel ponders limits for campaign gifts, lobbyists

State senators heard two bills to limit campaign contributions and lobbyist expenditures at a hearing of the Missouri Senate Rules and Ethics Committee on Tuesday.

The bills’ sponsors cited a perception from the public that special interests and wealthy donors dominate the political process in Missouri.

“The public perception of politicians in this state, it’s not good, it’s not good at all,” Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said. “Many of our constituents believe we are bought and paid for by special interests. … We can dispel that myth.”

Nasheed’s bill would cap contributions to all candidates at $2,600 and would bar General Assembly members and their staff and family from accepting travel and tickets for sporting events and concerts from lobbyists.

“People throughout the state are becoming more and more cynical each day. … they are not becoming involved because they believe the special interest groups control what happens here,” Nasheed said.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey raised a concern with Nasheed’s bill about how it would affect candidates running against someone who had already raised money under the current rules and whether that candidate would have an unfair advantage over someone who has to raise money under the new rules.

Dempsey also pointed to the national situation, where there are contribution limits, but “it hasn’t done anything. … to reduce the influence of money in politics or change the perceptions of the people we serve.”

The second bill was sponsored by Sen. Will Kraus, R-Lee’s Summit, and would limit campaign contributions on a sliding scale with limits for statewide candidates at $10,000, for state senators at $2,500, and for state representatives at $1,000. It would also enact caps for contributions between political committees.

“My constituents overwhelmingly support (campaign contribution) caps,” Kraus said.

Kraus’ bill would also bar legislators from accepting lobbyist gifts larger than $50, require former legislators wait two years before becoming a lobbyist and restrict fundraising activity in public buildings.

“The perception out there is that we need to do an ethics bill,” Kraus said. “When people are vocal, that is when something will happen.”

No one testified for or against either of the bills, and the committee members gave little indication of where they came down on the issue or how to approach reforms.

After the hearing, Dempsey said he thinks the Senate could move an ethics bill this session but was concerned with attempting to cap campaign contributions. He said the courts have ruled that contribution caps limited free speech, and the U.S. Supreme Court had yet to rule on aggregate contribution limits.

He said the major components he would like to see in an ethics bill includes limits on lobbyist expenditures and more transparency for nonprofit organizations involved in political activity. Currently, certain nonprofit groups are not required to disclose their donors.

“People should know who is giving to committees that are supporting or opposing candidates,” he said.

The House also heard a slew of ethics bills on Tuesday, including bills with similar to provisions to what is in Nasheed’s and Kraus’ bills.

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