JEFFERSON CITY — Senator Rob Schaaf, R-Saint Joseph, has pre-filed Senate Joint Resolution 1. If passed, it would put to a vote of the people a constitutional amendment relating to contribution limits.
On Nov. 8, Missourians approved by a 40-point margin a constitutional amendment limiting contributions to political campaigns. Unfortunately, portions of the amendment are vulnerable to legal challenge and likely to be struck down. Also, the amendment lacks language needed to prevent circumvention of the limits, and experts predict that big-money contributions will still be made, only in ways that are less transparent than before.
In a statement, Senator Schaaf said, “Missourians voted overwhelmingly on Nov. 8 to reinstate contribution limits. We in the Legislature now have a duty to make sure that these limits are neither circumvented nor struck down.”
Senate Joint Resolution 1 would address weaknesses of the new contribution limits, defending them against three primary threats:
1. Legal Challenges
The new law prohibits corporations and unions from contributing to political committees that exclusively spend their money supporting or opposing ballot measures. Senate Joint Resolution 1 would delete this provision because it violates long-standing Supreme Court doctrine. By warding off an expensive legal challenge, one that would almost certainly succeed, the SJR aims to save taxpayer money. Also, by deleting the provision before the courts have an opportunity to strike it down themselves, the SJR avoids the possibility that the courts will invalidate the entirety of the sentence that contains the provision and thereby excise from the law other important provisions as well.
Also, the new law allows certain types of Missouri corporations to contribute to political action committees but prohibits other types of Missouri corporations from doing so. This has already been challenged in court once on the grounds that it violates the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution. Now that the election is over, the same challenge is likely to be brought before the courts again, costing taxpayer money and potentially resulting in a ruling that substantially weakens the new contribution limits. To prevent this from happening, SJR 1 would make the law consistent, prohibiting all business entities and labor organizations from contributing to political action committees. To comply with established jurisprudence, it still would allow for the creation of Super PACs — committees that may accept unlimited contributions from unions, business entities and others but may not contribute to candidates or to other committees.
2. Shell Committees
Under the new law, no person or entity may contribute more than $2,600 during a single election to any candidate for state representative, state senator or statewide office. However, it remains legal to circumvent these limits by channeling contributions through shell committees. For example, a person could set up a hundred political action committees, contribute $2,600 to each of them, then have all hundred contribute all their money to the same candidate.
To prevent such circumvention, SJR 1 stipulates that no contribution shall be made or accepted with the intent to circumvent the contribution limits. It further specifies conditions that suggest such intent, and it empowers the Missouri Ethics Commission to issue regulations ensuring that no one may avoid the contribution limits through the creation or use of multiple vehicles for political spending.
3. Coordinated Expenditures
Under the new law, it is legal to circumvent the contribution limits by making political expenditures in coordination with candidates. For example, a corporation or union could spend its own money to run TV ads produced by a favored candidate or according to such candidate’s specifications. Or, an employee or family member of a candidate could establish a political action committee, accept contributions to that committee, then spend all of those contributions making expenditures in support of the candidate. Contributions to the committee would not legally be considered as contributions to the candidate, but they would be understood as such by both the candidate and the committee’s contributors, and they would have the same effect.
To prevent such circumvention, SJR 1 would modify the contribution limits so that they would cover expenditures made in coordination with candidates’ campaign teams and expenditures used to republish or disseminate campaign materials prepared by candidates’ campaign teams.
More information about the SJR can be found at: https://www.senate.mo.gov/17info/BTS_Web/Bill.aspx?SessionType=R&BillID=57095447.