Leveling the playing field

"The Missouri Supreme Court on Monday ordered candidates to refund any oversized campaign contributions they accepted this year unless they could show such refunds would create a serious hardship.

The court ordered the Missouri Ethics Commission to give any candidate a hearing to show why refunding the money would be overly burdensome.

Such hardship, the court wrote, would depend on the amount of contributions that exceeded the limits in effect before Jan. 1, 2007, and the extent to which those contributions already had been spent.

“Depending on the amount of money involved, it could become prohibitively difficult and expensive to require candidates to refund this money,” the decision said. “It might also be futile, as donors could skirt the limitations on direct contributions” by giving the money indirectly through political party fundraising committees.

However, to allow candidates to keep thousands of dollars in huge contributions, the court said, would be unfair to candidates who have yet to raise money or even declare their candidacy.

“In balancing these variables in an election such as this, one must endeavor to avoid doing so in a way that creates a political advantage for one candidate over another,” the court said.

However, no refunds will be required of candidates whose elections already have been held, such as municipal races and other local contests held in the spring. To require refunds of money already spent would constitute a “manifest injustice,” the court said.

The unsigned decision was a follow-up to the court’s July 19 ruling that reinstated contribution limits that the legislature adopted in 1994. The legislature repealed the limits in 2006, but the court ruled unanimously that the legislative procedure was invalid.

Under the limits, statewide candidates could accept a maximum contribution of $1,275. Candidates for state Senate were limited to $650 and candidates for the House maxed out at $325.

With the limits gone, some candidates for state Senate received contributions as large as $40,000. Gov. Matt Blunt accepted $300,000 from a wealthy Texas couple. Attorney General Jay Nixon, who plans to challenge Blunt next year, received $100,000 from a single labor union.

Paul Sloca, spokesman for the Missouri Republican Party, stopped short of saying the decision was a loss for the GOP.

“We believe that candidates and contributors should not be punished for obeying the law, and we sincerely hope that the Missouri Ethics Commission will take the people, and not politics, into consideration when deciding the fairest way to apply the law the people’s representatives enacted,” Sloca said.

Democrats rejoiced at the ruling.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for those Missourians who believe elections should be fought on a level playing field,” party spokesman Jack Cardetti said. “It will be hard for Matt Blunt to argue that returning $350,000 from the Swift Boat benefactors creates a hardship.”

Nixon’s office said the decision “clears the way for the ethics commission to order refunds of contributions in excess of limits.”

Bob Connor, the Ethics Commission’s executive director, said the agency’s attorneys would present their recommendations and analysis to the full commission on Thursday. The commission might adopt policies to comply with the court ruling, Connor said.

But Connor said the ruling appears to require the agency to conduct a case-by-case review of every candidate for office. The agency will have to weigh each hardship that is claimed on all the other candidates in a race, he said.

“If X says, ‘I have a hardship for these reasons,’ ” the commission will have to consider it, Connor said. The commission will then determine how that affects every person in the same race.

After the decision to reinstate the limits, the Supreme Court invited legal arguments on whether contributions in excess of the limits should be refunded or whether the limitation should be enforced only after the July 19 ruling.

Monday’s ruling clearly fragmented the court. Four judges agreed with the decision, but two others dissented, saying the proposed remedy was unworkable."

The Star’s Jefferson City correspondents