Proclaiming to his fellow lawmakers that they are serving in the Missouri General Assembly “during a time that will define this body for a generation,” House Speaker Todd Richardson opened the 2016 session as promised with an emphasis on reforming legislative ethics law.
“Tomorrow, on the first day that bills can be referred (to committee), I will refer every ethics bill that has been filed to the Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability,” said Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican. “I am asking that committee to act with haste to send us a set of substantive, meaningful, single-subject ethics bills so that they may be the very first matter this General Assembly tackles.”
The Missouri General Assembly is coming off a year where it was enshrouded with scandal and tragedy.
Auditor Tom Schweich committed suicide in February. House Speaker John Diehl’s relationship with an intern forced him to resign in May. Sen. Paul LeVota was forced from office in July following allegations of sexual harassment by interns.
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During his opening day address to the House, Richardson noted that the legislature “has had some challenging times over the last year.”
“This institution should not and will not be defined by the actions of a few,” Richardson said.
There are 16 ethics-related bills filed in the Missouri House, ranging from restoring campaign contribution limits to banning lobbyist gifts.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican, said the first ethics bill the Senate will debate would prohibit lawmakers from becoming lobbyists until they’re out of office for two years and ban lobbyist gifts to elected officials.
Kehoe also answered questions about a proposed change to the Senate’s rules that would bar journalists from having access to the floor of the Missouri Senate as of March 29.
Reporters have had a table on the Senate floor for decades from which they’ve covered the chamber’s proceedings. Under the proposed rule change, reporters wishing to view Senate debate will have to do so from a space in the fourth floor public gallery.
The press table will be turned over to Senate staff. This follows a decision last fall to turn offices used by the media over to Senate communications staff, with reporters moved to the fifth floor.
“Senators have been talking about it for years,” Kehoe said, “and I think the time has come that they believe they need more room for staff to work.”
He insisted the press would still have open access to Senate proceedings.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, chose not to give an opening day address, noting that during an election year “there will be enough speeches on this floor.”
Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, a St. Louis Democrat, worried that with the 2016 election on the horizon, speeches will be the only thing that will get accomplished.
“In an election year, typically not a whole lot of bills get passed,” he said. “I hope this year proves to be different.”
Richardson sounded a note of optimism, saying that the legislature “cannot be a place where inaction, infighting and indifference define us.”