My Choices 1 (Premiere Piece for the Premier Amendment)

YES on Amendment 1 to Tackle Corruption in Politics

Thomas Nast, Harper’s Weekly, October 21, 1871 (Public Domain)

It just makes sense to start at 1. It’s basic, the pilot, the premiere.

Particularly this year, though, 1 is as important as it’s ever been, affecting the ability of every other “number” to get anything done of any consequence. I’m talking, of course, about Amendment 1, which seeks to to rein in the influence of lobbyists and mega-donors in Jefferson City. I’m going to vote for it, because Missouri is long overdue for serious anti-corruption reform.

A little background, first. Surely, you already know there’s corrupt and corporate money in politics, even here in Missouri. And that rich donors and lobbyists have so much more influence over public policy than those of us without a cool billion.

What you may not know, though, is that Missouri’s government is exceptionally, and blatantly, corrupt, and in a number of ways.

I’m going to start this with one of several problems — the loopholes that allow the super-wealthy to circumvent campaign finance limits through a complex web of nonprofits and political action committees (“PACs”) — just because it’s the one that gets me most worked up. Through these organizations, the richest Missourians are able to buy politicians and exert enormous influence on public policy, campaign contribution limits be damned.

To best illustrate the PAC problem in Missouri, let’s conjure up two potential campaign donors. The first (let’s call her “Terry”) is a prominent personal injury lawyer who nets about $500,000 per year. The second (let’s call him “Rex”) is a semi-retired billionaire and libertarian activist. Both support Bob Jones for governor.

Now — Terry certainly doesn’t reflect the average voter. Because of her personal wealth, what she needs and expects out of politicians are likely different from, say, the needs and expectations of her office manager. But, because Terry has money to throw at politicians and issue campaigns, she can exert more influence over public policy.

Until recently, Terry’s ability to make such donations was limited only by her imagination — she could throw twenty or thirty thousand dollars at Bob Jones and fund a healthy portion of his campaign. Which, of course, would make Bob very interested in making Terry happy.

Back in 2016, though, Missouri voters approved a $5,200 limit (per election cycle, per candidate) on campaign donations. Now, Terry can’t concentrate her donations like before, buying so much influence from an individual politician. And politicians, in turn, have less incentive to spend all their efforts on rich constituents at the expense of poor and working-class voters.

Missouri’s contribution caps make sense, and they work. Unless — perversely — you’re WAY RICHER than Terry.

Take our billionaire, Rex. Technically, he’s subject to the same individual contribution limit as Terry. But Rex spends a lot more money on each of the politicians he funds. All he has to do is launder it through some PACs.

You see — anyone can form any number of PACs, which are subject to the same contribution limits as individuals. And, when you form those PACs, there’s nothing to prevent you from single-handedly funding each and every one of them. Nor is there any law that prevents PACs from transferring unlimited amounts of money to other PACs.

So, Rex forms five different PACs, each with names like “Missourians for Freedom,” or “Missourians for Safe Streets” (Rex really likes the word “Missourians” in his PACs). He personally writes each PAC a check for $500,000. He also has two PACs left over from the last election (formed to oppose those campaign contribution limits, say), which each transfer $30,000 to the new PACs.

Then, each of the new PACs sends Bob Jones a check for $5,200. Even though the $5,200 limit technically applies to him, Rex, using only his money, just gave Bob Jones’s campaign $26,000. And it was 100% legal.

The PAC loophole is not at all the only thing keeping Missouri politicians deeply mired in muck and beholden to corporate benefactors. For example, did you know there currently isn’t a law preventing lobbyists from giving personal gifts — of any size — to legislators, even while they’re asking for political favors for their wealthy clients?

It’s true. And it’s mind-blowing. According to a report by CLEAN Missouri (the campaign in favor of Amendment 1), lobbyists have given Missouri legislators an average of $885,022 in gifts each year since 2004. Last year, alone, lobbyist gifts totaled over $1 million. We’re talking about lobbyists paying for travel, rounds of golf, concert and sports tickets, alcohol, and so. many. steak. dinners.

Think about that for a moment. Lobbyists are hired for one reason — to convince lawmakers to do good things for their clients. So, on a regular basis, cable industry lobbyists, for example, are pitching pro-industry policies to lawmakers while those same lawmakers are eating $40 filets paid for by those lobbyists.

The only word for that — at a definitional level — is bribery.

And it doesn’t stop there. Missouri’s legislative districts are so gerrymandered that 90% of races are never competitive. So, once elected, a lawmaker can sit comfortably in office, enjoying the largesse of the lobbyist community, all the way until they hit their term limits. After that — because there’s no law against it — they frequently have lucrative jobs waiting for them at the same lobbying firms that fed them for years.

It’s no wonder, then, that a 2015 study by the Center for Public Integrity gave Missouri a D- grade in government transparency and accountability (with F grades in political financing, electoral oversight, and legislative accountability, among other failing categories). Because corruption abounds in Jefferson City, and all of it — all of it — is currently legal.

Amendment 1 ambitiously attacks these problems and seeks to build a more ethical, accountable legislature, and decrease the outsized influence of wealthy corporate donors and lobbyists. In addition to making the legislature abide by the open records laws that apply to the rest of the government, the amendment simultaneously attacks three areas that significantly contribute to corruption: campaign finance, lobbyists, and gerrymandering. (See the actual ballot language here.)

The amendment would lower campaign contribution limits to $2,500 for state senate candidates and $2,000 for house candidates. It would ban legislative fundraising on state property. And, significantly, it would keep people like our friend Rex from circumventing the contribution caps by attributing money from single-source PACs to the actual individual donor. In other words, Rex could no longer form his five PACs and donate like he’s five different people.

The amendment attacks the lobbyist culture in Jefferson City by banning single gifts worth more than $5 (eliminating an estimated 99% of lobbyist gifts to legislators). It would shut down the revolving door by requiring politicians to wait two years before becoming lobbyists.

Finally, the amendment attacks gerrymandering by handing over legislative map-drawing to a nonpartisan expert and a citizen commission. It also adds multiple criteria to the map-drawing task, including fairness, competitiveness, and protection of minority voters against vote dilution.

There just isn’t a downside, here, unless you’re a lawmaker or mega-donor who thrives off the lax ethics rules. Which is probably why Republican lawmakers are spinning it as a Democratic power grab (focusing entirely on the gerrymandering part as some grand scheme to redistrict the Republican supermajority out of power). And also why billionaire libertarian campaign funder Rex Sinquefield just gave the anti-amendment group Missourians First (see what I’m saying about “Missourians”?) a check for $200,000.

No. Surprise. There.

The bottom line, here, is that any law that makes lawmakers less beholden to the wealthiest corporate donors is good. Any law that seeks to prevent outright bribery is good. Any law that makes redistricting fairer is good. And anyone trying to claim otherwise certainly isn’t putting “Missourians First.”

Amendment 1 is a significant step in the right direction toward a fairer, cleaner Missouri legislature. I will enthusiastically vote YES on November 6.

If you like what you read, please like, follow, share, and comment below! Email Matt at MattBellWrites@gmail.com with your comments/questions.

lefty lawyer / trivia host / karaokist / 14th Ward Democratic Committeeman living that STL South City dream. All opinions are my own. Matt@MattBellSTL.com

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