Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Lobbyist Money Help
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»«MDBO»COL057.PRB - The Influence of Money«MDNM»
One of my reporters after reading the first draft of this column warned me that the subject of campaign finances "is not exactly an exciting topic."
I fear he has a point. Too often campaign finance stories do seem to be limited to numbing numbers with little relationship to the issues that actually effect or are of interest to Missourians.
It was not always that way.
One of the more interesting campaign finance stories I remember arose in 1992.
It was the evening of the deadline for candidates to file their final disclosure reports before the November election. This was an era before the Web or digital filings. So, we had to scan through the printed reports hours after the sun had set.
Despite the absence of computer-based databases, what a great story we were able to produce. We found that abortion-rights groups were among the largest contributors to Democrat Mel Carnahan.
It turned out to be a story of long-term significance. After his election, Carnahan's abortion-rights stance and his efforts to get state family planning funds to Planned Parenthood became a dominate issue in his administration.
Two decades later, however, the challenges we face in delivering meaningful campaign finance stories are far greater.
While digital technology might make it seem easier to evaluate these reports, there's another side.
The growth in the amounts of money being pumped into campaigns is staggering -- not just in the dollars, but also in the number of groups kicking in what you or I would consider near fortunes.
And it's becoming increasingly more difficult to determine motivations behind these contributions.
Unlike 1992 when the abortion-rights groups contributing to Carnahan were obvious, contributions now often are funneled through groups with names that give you little sense as to their objectives. Even worse, some of those groups do not have to disclose the sources of their contributions.
Compounding the problem is the growth of non-Missouri "super PACs" that produce attack ads against Missouri candidates with money that never shows up in state campaign finance disclosure reports.
We are well past the era in which I could run my finger down the column of Mel Carnahan's campaign contributors and quickly produce a meaningful story for you.
A complicating factor is that some of these special interests have so much money that they spread their seeds as broadly as possible -- contributing to candidates on both sides.
For these types of groups, the objective is not just to get a favored candidate elected. It's also to have an access card of showing support to whomever gets elected. There's no danger of angering a candidate for not contributing if you give to all!
The late Sen. Norman Merrill taught me that lesson in the mid 1980s.
He had sponsored a bill pushed by the trucking industry to allow bigger trucks on Missouri's highways. Despite strong opposition from consumer advocates, it enjoyed widespread support in the legislature.
Smelling a story, I decided to see if there might be a connection with campaign contributions. Sure enough, the trucking industry had contributed to all but one of those in the Senate supporting the bill.
Great story, you would think. But, I also discovered that almost everyone who voted against the bill also got contributions from the industry. The seed had been spread, widely.
As for that one supporter who did not get any trucking money, it was Merrill himself. When I asked him about it, Merrill said he asked the industry to refrain from giving him contributions to avoid any story suggesting a conflict of interest.
But then Merill, with a smile on his face, confessed. He'd gotten an equivalent amount from a company that would enjoy a major financial benefit from bigger trucks. But it was company that did not have any obvious connection to the trucking industry, but it would enjoy the benefits of the bigger trucks.
This growth in the role special interest funding poses a fascinating question. Is the expanding financial dominance of special interests expanding their influence over government? Or, are the financial seeds of special interests being spread so widely as to be neutralizing?
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
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