Last year the Missouri Senate overwhelmingly approved a bill mandating a two-year waiting period for legislators before they could return to the Capitol as a professional lobbyist.
The waiting period would have applied only to future legislators, not those currently in office, and it still ended up dying before it could be passed into law.
On Thursday, the Senate approved a bill that actually included current lawmakers. But it changed course and rejected any waiting period at all, voting instead to only require lawmakers to finish their term before becoming a lobbyist.
To proponents of ethics reform legislation, this year’s vote isn’t surprising.
“This reveals the legislature does not have the will to pass meaningful ethics reform,” said Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican.
Over the last decade, as voter-imposed term limits began driving elected officials out of office, lobbyists’ ranks have swelled with former legislators and staff cashing in on their expertise and connections.
To critics, the dynamic erodes public trust and runs the risk of corrupting policy. It fuels a perception that lawmakers are casting votes to curry favor with potential future employers.
At least 33 states have dealt with the issue by enacting a “cooling-off period” before a legislator can come back to work as a lobbyist, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eight of those states make former legislators wait two years.
The Missouri House approved a one-year cooling-off period earlier this year. The Senate took up the bill this week and voted Thursday to remove the one-year ban.
“I’ve advocated for a stronger bill,” said Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles Republican sponsoring the measure. “But this is still an improvement over existing law.”
After a year marked by political scandal — including the resignations of two legislators over inappropriate conduct with interns — the General Assembly entered 2016 feeling the heat to overcome years of stalled progress and finally pass ethics reform.
That was amplified this week when Republican Rep. Don Gosen of St. Louis County resigned with little explanation under a cloud of suspicion. House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, said he asked Gosen to step down, although he declined to specify what Gosen had done to be forced from office.
In the coming weeks the Senate is expected to debate a host of ethics reform bills approved by the House, ranging from a ban on lobbyist gifts to a prohibition on lawmakers serving as political consultants while in office.
Thursday’s vote on a cooling-off period was the first of those bills to make it to the full Senate.
Debate lasted more than four hours, and in the end the vote to reject a cooling-off period had no clear partisan tilt.
“We are supposed to be citizen legislators,” Onder said. “This is not supposed to be our pathway job into a lucrative lobbying job.”
But clearly many of his colleagues didn’t agree.
Sen. Dave Schatz panned the idea, saying it was “a solution in search of a problem.” He said lawmakers have the “freedom to pursue happiness that’s guaranteed to us in the Constitution.”
Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny, a St. Louis Democrat, said he has a problem telling legislators who dedicate years of their life to public service “that now they can’t work for a year after they’re done.”
Holsman said he opposed the cooling-off period because he believes it is unconstitutional and would have been struck down by the courts.
In the end, the opposition won out and the one-year ban was removed from the bill.
Onder said he still believes the legislation contains important provisions.
Legislators will no longer be able to resign their elected office early in order to become lobbyists, as former House speaker Steve Tilley did in 2012. And the Senate bill applies to current lawmakers, where the House version only applied to those elected or re-elected this year.
The bill would also prohibit a company or individual from soliciting a legislator to become a lobbyist while he or she is still in office.
Schaaf said he ultimately voted for the bill because “even the weakest measure is better than nothing.”
“It’s incrementally better,” he said. “On a scale of one to 100, it’s a three.”
The bill now goes back to the House, which can sign off on the changes the Senate made or request a conference committee to work out the differences.
The cooling-off period legislation is House Bill 1979.