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Mo. Mega-Donor Challenges Efforts to Limit Contributions

Posted: Dec 26, 2013 7:40 PM by Nick Thompson, KOMU 8 Reporter
Updated: Dec 26, 2013 11:11 PM

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JEFFERSON CITY - Although retired index fund pioneer Rex Sinquefield is a private citizen, he is often a key figure in the public debate surrounding Missouri's campaign finance system.

In the 1970s, Sinquefield helped create the first index funds at Standard and Poor's.

The St. Louis native led a long career in finance and no one knows for certain how much wealth he accumulated in his career. Some estimate Sinquefield is worth billions.

Sinquefield often opens his wallet to donate to political candidates and committees in the Show-Me State. According to an analysis of Missouri Ethics Commission campaign finance reports by the St. Louis Beacon, Sinquefield has given more money to public officials than any other individual in the state since the 2008 general election. From 2008-2013, Sinquefield has donated nearly $27 million to candidates and committees with proven records in advancing his causes.

Sinquefield's two major issues are income tax cuts and school choice initiatives. Sinquefield wants Missouri to become the tenth state in the country to eliminate individual income taxes.

Sinquefield wants to advance new, fresh ideas in these two arenas because he feels it will lead his home city of St. Louis and his home state of Missouri to prosperity.

"I love the state of Missouri, I love St. Louis, and I love being back from California," Sinquefield told the Missouri Council for a Better Economy in 2011."Every day I feel like I've died and gone to heaven. I love it but what I'm very frustrated by is the terribly slow growth that the city has and the state has."

Sinquefield received an MBA from the University of Chicago and studied under free-market economic thinkers. He founded the Show-Me-Institute, a free market, libertarian policy think-tank that takes on tax issues in Missouri.

Although Sinquefield's two causes are often championed by conservative lawmakers, he invests in people who will support his causes, regardless of their political affiliation. Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster received more than $250,000 from Sinquefield before the Nov. 2012 elections.

Some state lawmakers and groups say mega-donors like Sinquefield leave a much larger imprint in policy-making because they wield disproportionately more influence because of their wealth.

Opponents of Missouri's unlimited campaign finance system often refer to Sinquefield as an example of why lawmakers and voters should call for changes.

Democratic Secretary of State Jason Kander told KOMU 8 News the average Missourian feels like they do not have a voice in what he calls Missouri's "lawless" campaign finance system.

"I think that Missourians in many cases feel like they're left out of the process if they don't have the ability to write enormous checks, and it's our responsibility as leaders in this state to make sure people are brought into the process not alienated from it," Kander said.

TRIMMING TAXES

Sinquefield was recently tied to a massive campaign effort launched by pro-growth business groups before the September veto session.

After Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed House Bill 253, an income tax cut bill, Grow Missouri, the Associated Industries of Missouri and others joined forces to create a multi-media advertising blitz to advocate for the tax cut.

Sinquefield gave more than $2 million to the effort.

Sinquefield has also donated millions to Let Voters Decide, a group he created to push for the elimination of income taxes.

Kansas City and St. Louis residents and non-residents who work in the city pay an income tax worth one percent of their income known as the earnings tax, or "e" tax. The tax funds significant portions of municipal government in both cities.

In 2010, Let Voters Decide backed a ballot initiative that was approved by Missouri voters. The initiative barred any other cities in Missouri from imposing an earnings tax and also required a new vote on earnings taxes in both Kansas City and St. Louis. Each decade, the two cities now have to allow residents to vote on whether they want the city to continue to levy the tax.

In 2011, Let Voters Decide backed a ballot initiative to eliminate Missouri's income tax and fund state government with a higher sales tax. The proposal did not make it on to the 2012 general election ballot.

SCHOOL CHOICE

Sinquefield is also a contributor to the Children's Education Alliance of Missouri (CEAM). The group is currently behind a ballot initiative effort, which if approved by voters, would eliminate teacher tenure in the state. It would also require personnel decisions to be guided by teacher evaluations.

CEAM registered lobbyist Kate Casas is referred to as a "Sinquefield lobbyist" by groups like the Missouri State Teachers Association and the Missouri National Education Association. The group is currently mired in controversy because it approached Missouri Department of Elementary and Secondary Education commissioner Chris Nicastro to receive feedback on its ballot language and fiscal note.

Education groups disapprove of how Nicastro has worked with Casas and the initiative's proponents.

Nicastro has defended her actions, saying she works with hundreds of lawmakers and groups who come to her and ask for advice in drafting legislation or other policy changes.

LIMITING CONTRIBUTIONS

Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Fred Sauer is the leader of The Missouri Roundtable for Life, an anti-abortion group.

During his gubernatorial run he vowed to reinstate Missouri's campaign contribution limits.

He said the current campaign finance system gives off an image of corruption.

That's why Missouri Roundtable for Life wants to limit individual contributions to a candidate to $2600.

The group's ballot language has been approved by Kander's office.

"Excessive campaign contributions to political candidates create the potential for corruption and the appearance of corruption," the group wrote in the measure. "Large campaign contributions made to influence election outcomes allow wealthy individuals, corporations and special interest groups to exercise a disproportionate level of influence over the political process.

Missouri's campaign finance system has changed three times in the last two decades. Voters decided by an overwhelming margin in 1994 to limit contributions.

Then Attorney General Jay Nixon argued the limits before the U.S. Supreme Court and won in 2000.

Gov. Matt Blunt signed a bill into law in 2008 to remove contribution limits after the Missouri Supreme Court upheld them.

In 2010, the Democratic led General Assembly passed a bill to reinstate the contribution limits. That law was eventually overturned by the Missouri Supreme Court and since then, Missouri has had an unlimited system.

Sinquefield hired lawyers from the Jefferson City office of the Blitz, Bardgett and Deutsch law firm to challenge the ballot language of Missouri Roundtable for Life's initiative petition.

One of its attorneys, Marc Ellinger told KOMU 8 News the current campaign finance system is lawful, transparent and should stay the way it is.

Ellinger said large contributions do not necessarily carry more weight and are just one of many forms of participation in the political process.

"It's no different than taking out newspaper ads or organizing grassroots campaigns," Ellinger said. "The purpose of those donations is to influence public thinking or public speech. And there are people on both sides of every one of these issues."

Cole County Circuit Judge Jon Beetem made a decision on Sinquefield's legal challenge to the ballot initative on Nov. 27. Beetum gave the go-ahead to parts of the proposal but also asked the State Auditor and Secretary of State to review the fiscal note and other parts of it.

Ellinger said he is fighting the proposal because he believes the Supreme Court will overturn this campaign contribution constitutional amendment and the state will have to spend taxpayer money to defend legal challenges from people like Sinquefield.

Rep. David Wood, R-Versailles, said lofty contributions do not always help mega-donors get their way in Jefferson City.

Wood was one of 15 House Republicans who did not vote with the rest of his caucus to override Nixon's veto of House Bill 253.

Wood said Sinquefield-backed pro-growth groups like Grow Missouri spent a lot of money on a multi-media ad blitz, but never came to the Capitol to have meaningful policy conversations with lawmakers.

"I don't know what they hoped to accomplish before going to the public before coming to us," Wood said. "Because all of those organizations that sent out and put out that money... they have not come through my door and talked with me directly."

Wood said he voted for the tax cut bill the first time but started doing more research and thought it was a bad bill.

Wood said more than 60 percent of his constituents told him to vote no, and said that influenced his decision-making, not campaign spending.

"If it's a good tax bill you won't have to spend $2 million to pass it," Wood said.

"In the end the measures are the ones that voters vote upon, not what people say and not who writes checks," Ellinger said. "People as a general statement are smart enough to figure out what the right thing to do is and what the wrong thing to do is."

If Missouri Roundtable for Life gets past the legal challenges, it needs to get more than 150,000 signatures to get the proposal on the ballot because it is a proposed constitutional amendment.

Missouri voters would decide next November whether to change the campaign finance system again.

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