John Wright calls it “the million-dollar legislature.”
Wright, a sophomore state rep in the Missouri General Assembly, plowed through reports recently and arrived at that painfully apt nickname.
In 2013 alone, lobbyists and special interests — who are in the business of influencing legislation — rained a million bucks on our lawmakers in dinners, golf outings and sports and concert tickets.
One million bucks. Divide that by the 197 lawmakers in the House and Senate, and you get $5,076per lawmaker.
That’s a lot of freebies.
It’s legal. Under Missouri’s loose-as-a-goose ethics laws, special interests are free to lavish such things as $5,000 dinners on legislative committees — and this happened for the House Utilities Committee at a steak joint last March in Columbia. Can you imagine how much steak and booze $5,000 buys in Columbia?
That committee works in the legislative backwater tinkering with fees and rates and charges that get passed on to you. All that tinkering pays for that $5,000 steak dinner thousands of times over.
What especially concerns Wright is how built in all this is to the culture of our state Capitol. It’s become simply what happens year in and year out. There’s so much free food in the statehouse every lunch hour that you never have to venture outside to pay for anything.
It’s that same culture that enables lobbyists to write bills and hand them to lawmakers to be introduced. It’s the way things roll. Lobbyists rule, and no one bats an eye.
“The practices are so pervasive, so habitual, among legislators that they don’t feel an impetus to change anything,” Wright told me this week.
By default, that may mitigate the impact of any one special interest, and that’s a good thing. But that so many groups feel the need to spend big to curry favor doesn’t bode well either.
Missouri remains the only state in the nation that allows unlimited lobbyist gifts and unlimited campaign donations. It’s a toxic combo that suggests lawmakers are for sale year after year. Once again, reform attempts appear to be floundering — both through legislation and by initiative petition.
Last year, a St. Louis professor started a website —moreform.org
— encouraging lawmakers to sign no-gift pledges. As of Friday, only Wright and one other lawmaker had signed on the dotted line. Neither is from Kansas City.
This newspaper and others have banged on the need for ethics reform for years to little avail. Now, it’s in your hands. It’s amazing what a few phone calls or emails can do.