Lobbyists spent $200,000 on trips for Missouri lawmakers

04/21/2014 9:34 AM

04/21/2014 9:52 AM

Industry and special interest groups spent more than $200,000 in the last three years on trips for Missouri lawmakers, according to a newspaper analysis.

Records reviewed by The St. Louis Post-Dispatch show the travel-related spending in many cases included airline tickets, hotel rooms, meals and convention fees. While lobbyist spending is legal in Missouri, critics say the practice can create conflicts of interest when legislators vote on important issues.

The trips are "vacations that are masquerading as something else," said John Messner, founder of Missourians for Government Reform.

"I absolutely understand the need (for legislators) to speak to lobbyists," Messner said. "My difficulty is when they wrap that 'education' up with some kind of goody, something of value."

Defenders of lobbyist spending say paying for trips that provide lawmakers with valuable information is not the same as plying legislators with perks.

Republican state Rep. T.J. Berry of Kearney was among four Missouri lawmakers whom Microsoft hosted at its Seattle-area headquarters in October 2013 for its "Midwest Legislative Roundtable" program.

"I got a tremendous amount out of the trip. It exposed us to how technology is changing and can work to make government more efficient," Berry said.

The "learning experience at some of these events is extremely valuable, and some way, somehow you need to pay for it. Do you want your tax dollars to pay for it?" Berry asked.

The Missouri Biotechnology Association, which promotes the growth of the state's biotechnology and biomedical industries, was among the most prolific providers of travel and related expenses. The association spent more than $40,000 from 2011 to 2013 on statewide tours of Missouri biotech facilities and other events.

The association pushed for the Missouri Science and Innovation Reinvestment Act, or MOSIRA, which called for state income taxes collected on new wages in science and high-tech industries to be earmarked to help those industries grow. The measure passed and was signed in 2011, but the Missouri Supreme Court struck it down on a technical issue.

Missouri Roundtable for Life, an anti-abortion group that opposed MOSIRA, said the fight over the act was uneven because the association gave travel perks to legislators.

"We absolutely believe that those kinds of trips were factors" in the passage of the legislation, Molly McCann, Missouri Roundtable's executive director, said in an emailed statement.

Kelly Gillespie, the Missouri Biotechnology Association's executive director, disputed that characterization but said he agrees constraints should be imposed on some lobbyist gifts.

He said his organization has sponsored educational outings for legislators.

But "I've never bought a meal inside the Missouri state Capitol, because I don't like the image it projects," he said.

"There's no golf outings, there's no casino trips," Gillespie said. "We do rent a motor coach; it's an economical way to travel ... (But) I think it's in a vastly different category than running someone to the Super Bowl."

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