Our area representatives make big claims each year of being in Jefferson City to represent the so-called "little guy." And while that may be true, one of their votes in the waning moments of the just-completed legislative session represents a slap in the face to "little guys" all over the state of Missouri.
By a vote of 83 to 72, the House voted to repeal campaign contribution limits, opening the door for special interests and certain retired billionaires with a love of educational vouchers to pour as much money into political campaigns as they can.
All but one Joplin-area representative voted for the measure, which had already been passed by the Senate, and is now on its way to Governor Matt Blunt, who has indicated he will sign the bill. Those voting for the bill were Rep. Steve Hunter, R-Joplin, Rep. Marilyn Ruestman, R-Joplin, Rep. Ed Emery, R-Lamar, Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City, and Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho. The only area representative not to vote for the bill was Rep. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, who voted "present" due to a conflict of interest. The Missouri Ethics Commission ruled recently that Richard could keep thousands of dollars in excess campaign contributions he received during the seven months limits were repealed in 2007...if the legislature passed a new law repealing the limits. While many other politicians, including Stevenson and Sen. Gary Nodler, R-Joplin, returned excess contributions, Richard claimed a "hardship" because he had sprinkled his money to the campaign accounts of his fellow representatives in a successful attempt to buy their vote to become the next Speaker of the House.
The senator who proposed the bill, Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, claims he did so because the special interests were already making these contributions, exceeding the limit by laundering them through a maze of party committees. This bill, he said, would benefit the people (and, of course, benefiting the people was the only thing Shields had on his mind when he proffered this legislation) by making campaign financing more "transparent."
Yet when the final version of the bill passed, only minor changes had been made. Those who do not care if it looks like they are trying to buy elected officials can donate as much as they want through their own name. Those who want to hide their identities can still do so through the party committees, which received only minor tweaks. So much for transparency. No one has yet explained why we simply could not have kept campaign contribution limits and plugged the committee loopholes.
It never fails to amaze me that our elected officials continually give lip service to doing what the people want them to do...unless, of course, it interferes with what they want to do.
In the 1990s, the issue of campaign contribution limits came before Missouri voters and 77 percent of them said they wanted limits, so we have had them for more than a decade. The only Missourians who do not want limits are the special interests and the legislators who are vying for their contributions.
And now they have won the day. In the biggest irony, in addition to the transparency argument, some of these self-serving elected officials claim this is a "free speech" issue. If you limit how many dollars a billionaire can put into a campaign, they argue, you are restricting his free speech.
Thanks to our state legislators, billionaires and well-heeled special interest groups have their unlimited freedom of speech. Now we will find out how much their free speech will cost the rest of us.