Every Republican running for governor agrees there is an ethics problem in the Missouri Capitol.
And at a forum held in Poplar Bluff this weekend attended by five of six GOP candidates, they laid out similar plans for how to deal with the problem.
Missouri is the only state with the trio of no campaign contribution limits, no caps on lobbyist gifts and no restrictions on legislators becoming lobbyists.
While none of the candidates spoke in favor of contributions limits, closing the revolving door between lawmaking and lobbying and restricting lobbyist gifts won near unanimous support.
New ethics laws should include “restrictions on a revolving door that stops lawmakers from leaving one day and picking up lobbyist clients the next day that they may have helped when they were in the legislature. I believe that’s wrong,” said Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder. “I believe we need a gift ban. We must restore a sense of personal responsibility in our office holders.”
A recent report by the liberal advocacy group Progress Missouri found lobbyists have doled out an average of $900,000 in gifts to lawmakers in the last 10 years — from meals to sports and concert tickets to out-of-state travel.
The culture of Jefferson City and the legislature has come under increased scrutiny in recent months due to intern sexual harassment scandals that forced the resignation of Republican House Speaker John Diehl and Democratic Sen. Paul LeVota. Dozens of women told The Star this summer that sexual harassment is commonplace in the Missouri Capitol.
“When you’re elected to office the public puts its trust in you,” said former House Speaker Catherine Hanaway. “You take an oath saying you’ll uphold the constitution and conduct yourself faithfully. I don’t think there’s anything in that oath that makes it faithful to abuse your power, chase skirts or have wild parties in the Capitol. We have got to end the shenanigans in Jefferson City.”
Businessman John Brunner told the Poplar Bluff crowd that he believes he’s lost business in the past by refusing to dole out gifts to politicians. He pledged to accept no gifts if elected governor, and said his staff would not either.
“Most people in Jefferson City are decent and good people,” he said. “It’s always the few that ruin it for everyone else. These new ethics laws need to be passed for the few.”
Former state Rep. Randy Asbury said he saw the problem first hand when he served in the legislature. He believes ending the revolving door and banning all lobbyist gifts would change the perception that “people are being bought in Jefferson City.”
State Sen. Bob Dixon said “there’s no question we have an ethics problem in Jefferson City.”
But unlike the other candidates, he doesn’t believe new laws will fix the problem.
“We need more ethical people,” Dixon said. “We need people in Jefferson City with a moral compass to do even better than what the law is.”
Author and former Navy SEAL Eric Greitens didn’t attend the Poplar Bluff forum.
But in a statement to The Star he said “career politicians have turned Jefferson City into a corrupt, do-nothing embarrassment. We can start cleaning up the mess by banning all gifts from lobbyists, closing the revolving door between legislators and lobbyists and applying term limits to every statewide elected official.”
House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Republican from Poplar Bluff who took over the leadership position after Diehl resigned, has vowed that ethics reform will be a priority during the 2016 legislative session.
Here’s video of the forum filmed by a reporter with The Missouri Times: