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Missouri Campaign Disclosure: Are Unlimited Contributions with Full Disclosure a Growing Trend?

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As media reports of criminal misconduct by legislators hit the airwaves and the public is inundated with tales of various unseemly financial relationships between politicians and their campaign contributors, state legislatures have worked anxiously to show action – any action – by passing “Campaign Transparency” legislation at a fever pitch. While most actors in the regulated community have recognized some virtue to increased disclosure of campaign activities, a companion effort by several states to permit unlimited contributions along with that disclosure remains controversial – it certainly is in Illinois on the last day of the Fall Veto Session. Clearly, the unintended pitfalls inherent to unlimited contributions can manifest easily. Nonetheless, there is a growing trend afoot at the state level (although decidedly not within the Congress or the SEC) to address “pay to play” scandals with transparency rather than limited contributions. One example of this phenomenon can be found in a state earning one disclosure advocacy group’s “Most Improved” award: the State of Missouri.

The Campaign Disclosure Project (CDP) recently ranked Missouri’s campaign disclosure law  among its “top five” in 2008 and gave the state’s disclosure laws an “A-”. In so doing, the CDP pointed out several positive components of the Missouri campaign disclosure law: Candidates must disclose detailed information on contributions and expenditures in excess of $100; a reporting requirement of late contributions and independent expenditures before Election Day; and the requirement of detailed loan disclosures.

On the other hand, Missouri is among the growing number of states to repeal virtually all contribution limits to candidates. This has generated controversy as recent bribery cases, as they always do, have prompted calls to address past criminal behavior with increased “ethics reform” legislation. There is little doubt that some form of ethics reform legislation is on the docket for Missouri’s General Assembly in 2010 but Missouri’s Speaker of the House recently has indicated any ethics reform proposed in 2010 will focus on closing disclosure loopholes in the current law rather than revisiting the rights of individuals, corporations, unions, PACs, or associations to make unlimited contributions to candidates. An article dated October 26th in the Joplin Globe has quoted Speaker Ron Richard as saying “. . . people should be able to give what they want. It should be transparent and direct, to the campaign and not through committees.”

Should Missouri decide to broach ethics reform, and continue with its perfectly acceptable policy decision not to re-impose contribution limits, Missouri’s legislators will probably be well served in the current “pay to play” environment to examine the transparency of their own personal financial disclosures. This is because, while Missouri scores relatively well in campaign disclosure requirements, the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) awarded Missouri’s personal financial disclosure requirements with 70.5 out 100 points and a letter grade of “C”. Missouri’s personal financial disclosure laws were identified as failing to require the disclosure of: the legislator’s job titles; income amount from each employment interest; amount from each investment interest; identifying clients associated with filer’s outside interests; income amount for each client; spouses’ client information; and value amount of each real property interest. Further, the CPI identified the state as not publishing a list of delinquent filers on the Web or in printed document as well not making public a list of lawmakers who failed to file reports by the required deadline, or filed incomplete or inaccurate reports.

The public mood, if such a thing can ever be gleaned, is most distraught by concerns of “too cozy” relationships between legislators and donors in their financial activities outside the public system. Increased disclosure in that regard is likely to be perceived as a true “reform” more necessary than contribution limits.

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