Why St. Louis County Council Campaign Contribution Reform Will Increase Dark Money in Local Politics

In the Merry Old Land of Oz
The lyrics to the Merry Old Land of Oz as performed in the 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz portrays a perfect world full of neverending cheer, limited work requirements and unwavering teamwork and unity from its citizens and rulers. If  St. Louis County was anything like the famous Land of Oz the Council’s 6-1  vote on May 8, 2018 in favor of bringing a proposed charter ammendment to voters this summer which caps political donations for County officials to $2,600 per person and restricts donations from entities under consideration for a County contract would have a real and meaningful effect our regions politics.

Unfortunately, St. Louis County goverment is much closer to the opposite of the Land of Oz and represents on of the most imperfect systems of municipal governments in the country.  Living in this sad reaility it should be of little suprise that the new legisilation does not limit monied interests in County politics. In truth I am not suprised the County Council has again proven their propensity for passing legislation with the goal of making a political statement and no intention to actually improve current conditions.  My grounded expectations in no way lessen the anger I feel everytime I see ineptitude, selfish interests and a complete void in leadership among the St. Louis County Council place our region one more step behind our competitors in terms of economic relevance.  

Ineptitude and Naivitae Among County Concil Members 

As written the County legislation is no different than Missouri’s statewide Ammendment 2 (passed in 2016) which limits personal campaign contributions but places no restrictions on contribution limits and provides no requirement to publically disclose the source of donations for “non-profit” 501(c)(4) entities that are formed to promote a certain politician or a political agenda. This loophole decreases the influence of traditional sources of campaign funding as labor unions, political action committees representing the private side of the construction industry  and any citizen or entity wishing to donate directly to the campaign fund of a County candidate. The folling St. Louis Public Radio article does an excellent job explaining 501(c)(4)’s and how they have increased the influence of wealthy donors in Missouri politics. Seals for Truth is a great example of a Missouri 501(c)(4) that was formed in 2016 exclusively to donate almost $2 million to Governor Eric Greitens campaign without listing any individual donors.

Source: OpenSecrets.org

Not addressing the glaring problems with Ammendment 2 that have been front and center in Missouri politics for the past few years can only be a result of incompetence and laziness (i.e. Council Members revoting on bills because they did not read them the first time) or  for some alterior motive.

The Potential Alterior Motive: Shifting Power from Local to State-Wide Office Holders

The majority of reporting regarding”dark money” has been framed in a partisan lense. What has been missed is any discussion on how this legislation severely restricts the fund raising ability of true local policitians with the ability to fundraise on a  purely local level (i.e. local local unions, businesses and indivduals) and how it greatly benefits Statewide office holders whose fundraising efforts span the entire State (or potentially County).

Source: MO Department of Revenue
Source: MO Department of Revenue

The majority of the $119 million(1) in purchased services by the County shown in the 2018 budget are bid on by and awarded to local businesses (the majority of these awards going to local contractors). While signficant, this figure pales in comparison to the $763 million(1) in tax and fee revenue the County expects to collect in 2018. The majority of this revenue is paid by national corporations located in the County who could greatly benefit from changes in local tax laws. Unbiased  and comprehesive legislation truly aimed at reducing the influence of monied interests in St. Louis County politics should address both of these potential conflicts of interest. I can not definitively prove that it is not by pure coincidence that:

  • Five of the six passing votes for this “campaign finance reform” legislation either have significant statewide fundraising abilities due holding statewide office in the past (Rochelle Walton, Sam Page) or
  • Represent the republican party that has historically opposed much of the locally financed construction and would benefit from limiting the influence of these oppponants (Colleen Wasinger, Mark Harder and Ernie Trakas) or
  • The legislation only addresses conflicts of interest among local donors 
  • The legislatio fails to address the problems created by Ammendment 2 
  • The fact that the majority of the Council opposes County Executive Steve Stenger who is heavily funded by local interests may not have any influence on the passage of this bill.

However, using the history of politics in the St. Louis region as a guide it seems much more likely that the above facts were not the result of coincidence but the result of a secrative and dysfunctional system in which elected officials have historically faced little to no push back for legislating with alterior motives.

The Big Picture: Putting Motives Aside

Purely local politicians with the ability to raise purely local money have not served the St. Louis region well over the past half century and the arguement for attracting state-wide office holders to run for local office is a legitimate one that should atleast be considered. However, in order to make a long-term impact on our region this type of change must be done within the context of a  comprehensive regional plan set forth by the County Executive and not in secret for the benefit of a handful of elected officials. Without a leader to inact this type of comprehensive regional plan the St. Louis Metro will continue its decline. For this reason, I believe the ability to inact a comprehensive regional plan and to achieve buy-in from neighboring governments and local business leaders should be a prerequisite of our next County Executive. 



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