When Missouri House Speaker Steve Tilley resigned from office in 2012 to become a political consultant and lobbyist, he still had a massive campaign war chest of more than $1 million.
He quickly invested most of that money in a bank in his hometown of Perryville. And over the years he has used his campaign fund to make donations to various Missouri legislators, some of whom eventually hired him as a consultant on their campaigns.
These practices have been widely criticized. A bill approved Thursday by the Missouri Senate seeks to make them illegal.
After weeks of struggling with ethics reform, the Senate voted unanimously to limit the ways in which money in a campaign committee can be invested and to ban elected officials from holding on to their campaign money if they become lobbyists.
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Elected officials would have to dissolve their campaign committee when they register as a lobbyist with the Missouri Ethics Commission. Any money they have would need to be returned to donors, given to charity or donated to a political party organization.
Tilley could not be reached for comment.
“I’m happy that we’re finally starting to talk about real ethics reform,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat.
The bill was amended Thursday by Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Columbia Republican, to include a requirement that certain political nonprofits must disclose their donors. Those that would be affected are nonprofits that are run by the staff or spouse of a candidate for office.
The bill now returns to the House, which originally passed the measure in January. But at the time it focused only on the investment of campaign funds. The House can sign off on the Senate’s changes and send the bill to the governor or request a conference committee to work out the differences.
Missouri is the only state with the trio of no campaign contribution limits, no caps on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and no waiting period before lawmakers can return to the Capitol after leaving office as a lobbyist.
Thursday’s vote marks a departure from previous ethics reform debates, which saw the Senate water down more restrictive House bills.
But the biggest proponents of ethics reform didn’t win every fight Thursday.
Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican, tried to ban transfers between candidate committees, such as a donation from a state senator to a Senate colleague or state representative. He argued that the practice allows those in legislative leadership to “purchase power” by taking donations from special interests and using that money to curry favor with other legislators.
Lawmakers become “beholden to legislative leaders, who are beholden to special interests,” Schaaf said, later adding: “If we truly want to thwart the efforts of special interests from influencing public policy, this amendment is important.”
Most of his fellow senators balked at the idea. Some, like Sen. Bob Onder, a St. Charles County Republican, said it seemed like Schaaf was “trying to ban politics from politics.” Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican, worried such a ban would be unconstitutional and thus cause a court to “toss the entire bill.”
In the end, a compromise was struck, banning only elected officials who become lobbyists from transferring their money into another candidate’s campaign committee.
“People are tired of the shell games,” Pearce said of nonprofits who spend money in political campaigns. “Why are these groups afraid to disclose their donors?
Holsman said it’s only right that candidates get to “face their accusers” when they are under attack by a nonprofit organization.
Onder disagreed, saying America has a long history of anonymous political speech.
In the end, the Senate split 15-15 on the idea, meaning it was defeated.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican sponsoring the bill, said he understood not everyone got everything they wanted in the legislation.
“But when these bills get loaded up, that’s what kills them,” he said. “We’re making progress. We’re moving the ball down the field on ethics reform.”
The House and Senate have yet to work out their differences on a pair of ethics reform bills. One would ban lawmakers from serving as political consultants while in office. Another aims to stop lawmakers from leaving office and immediately becoming lobbyists.
Additionally, House bills banning lobbyist gifts and mandating more frequent financial disclosure are still awaiting Senate approval.