JEFFERSON CITY - The Missouri Senate passed a broad ethics bill on Thursday that eliminates limits on campaign contributions to candidates, a move supporters say will give the public a better view of the interests funding political campaigns.
Sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, the bill would also halt legislative campaing fundraising during the legislative session and require disclosure of legislators benefiting from lobbyist gifts of meals, entertainment and travel to most legislative caucuses.
"This is one of the more significant pieces of legislation we've dealt with in a long time," said Senate Pro Tem Mike Gibbons, R-St. Louis County about the bill, which passed 29-3.
But one of the bill's opponents contends the legislation would lead to an explosion of money from special interests and wealthy individuals to political candidates.
Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, said she could not support the bill after an amendment was implimented to do away contribution limits to candidates.
"Lifting contribution limits, I just can't do it," Bray said. "It's a pretty deeply held belief of mine."
Current law sets a limit on how much a candidate can accept from any one person with the amount varying according to office. A House campaign is limited to accepting no more than $325 from any one individual for a campaign. The contribution limit rises to $650 for the Senate and $1,275 for the statewide offices.
Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, who placed the amendment into Shield's bill to banish contribution limits to candidates, said contribution limits enacted a few years ago lead to dozens of PACs cropping up to go around the system.
"Instead of giving you $6,000, we have ten different PAC committees, and each one gives you $600," Green said.
Green said current regulations allow candidates to evade public disclosure. He used the example of a campaign finance report on the Missouri Ethics Commission's web site that shows only a district committee instead of the name of the person who contributed the money.
And instead of less money going into elections, Green said the cost of running for office has skyrocketed.
"We're not following who's paying to promote what politician," Green said. "I figured if you take the limits off candidate committees, then all the special interests will start donating straight to the candidate committees. Then we can see who's giving what to who."
Bray said curtailing the limits could lead to a special interest "sponsoring a candidate."
"Money does make a difference in how we behave here, it's a fact of life," she said. "I think the extreme is that we have everyone sponsored by a lot of money or some interest."
While he said he also had problems with lifting the contribution limits, Sen. Pat Dougherty, D-St. Louis City, said he voted against the bill because the provision barring fundraising during the legislative session.
"The legislation, while it has a number of good points in it, basically makes it unfair for a challenger who wants to get into politics as a state representative or a state senator," Dougherty said.
Dougherty said Shields wanted to "correct a perception" that money being raised during the legislative session influneces votes. As a result, he said the bill outlaws challengers from raising money during a critical period.
"Many challengers believe that they want to come up here to serve constiuents, write laws, work out public policy," Dougherty said. "And a lot of them haven't planned this out since they were a child or years in advance. They believe that they want to file for office, they'll take the chance running before the voters and the voters will express their desire.
"But the way the bill is listed, they will be forbidden, even though they're not in office, from raising funds while the legislature is in session. That gives the incumbent a tremendous advantage, particularly if they've been fundraising awhile," he said.
Shields took issue with Dougherty's view, saying a recent court case required a ban on fundraising during the legislative session to include challengers.
He also said fundraising while bills are being discussed is a bad image to project to the public.
"The overriding issue of legislators raising money during session creates such a public perception that's a problem for us," Shields said.
The bill now makes it way to the Missouri House.