Local News Spotlight

Ethics reform in Missouri appears to be a nonstarter in election year

Updated: 2012-02-21T04:15:57Z

By JASON HANCOCK

The Star’s Jefferson City correspondent

— While he would support reinstating the ethics law thrown out last week by the Missouri Supreme Court, House Majority Leader Tim Jones thinks it may be better to wait until next year.

“If the issue advances, I’d be happy to support it, but I think we’ll attain a better bill in a non-election year,” said Jones, a Eureka Republican, on Monday.

The Missouri Supreme Court struck down the law on procedural grounds because the ethics provisions were included in an unrelated bill when they passed in 2010.

Rep. Jason Kander, a Kansas City Democrat, filed legislation last week that would restore the invalidated law and institute additional measures, such as limits on how much money can be donated to political candidates.

The day after it was introduced, Gov. Jay Nixon called on lawmakers to quickly pass ethics reforms, saying the court’s ruling “caused a lessening of the protection and openness” in the state’s political system.

Jones said the push from Kander and Nixon has more to do with politics than good government. Because both Democrats are running for statewide office and are accepting large campaign donations, it is hypocritical for them to now call for contribution limits, he said.

“I think there is an element of political partisanship,” Jones said.

Nixon dismissed Jones’ argument, saying he has supported donation limits “throughout my political career.”

He pointed to the fact that in 1999, while serving as attorney general, he argued before the U.S. Supreme Court in defense of contribution restrictions implemented by Missouri voters.

The contribution limits, passed by voters in 1994, were overturned by the General Assembly in 2007. Missouri is the only state that allows lawmakers to accept both unlimited campaign donations and unlimited lobbyist gifts.

Kander, who is running for secretary of state, said he would be willing to strip any provision from his bill that was not part of the legislation passed in 2010.

“I don’t think this has to be a partisan issue,” said Kander, who has sponsored ethics legislation each year since first being elected to the House in 2008.

Every current member of Republican legislative leadership, including Jones, voted in favor of the ethics bill in 2010. The House approved it 153-5. The Senate passed it 32-1.

The law tossed out by the Supreme Court banned certain types of committee-to-committee money transfers, a move intended to help the public track sources of campaign contributions. It gave the Missouri Ethics Commission more authority to launch investigations and made obstruction of an ethics investigation a crime. It also mandated that donations of $500 or more be reported within 48 hours during the legislative session.

Jones said he has spoken with several lawmakers about sponsoring a new ethics bill. But most are already sponsoring several bills, he said, and that makes it difficult for them to shoulder the burden of carrying ethics legislation.

As for Kander’s bill, if it is assigned to a committee, and if that committee approves, Jones will consider whether it should come before the full House.

“If it ends up on my calendar, I’ll have a decision to make,” said Jones, who as majority leader decides which bills are brought up for debate.

To reach Jason Hancock, call 573-634-3565 or send email to jhancock@kcstar.com.

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