Dave Schatz insists Missouri’s statehouse is getting a bum rap.
“People calling politicians in Jeff City corrupt, I take great offense to that,” said Schatz, a Republican state senator from Franklin County. “By and large, people who choose to serve in Jeff City are honorable and go there for good purpose.”
For years, Jefferson City’s reputation has been fueled in part by the fact that Missouri is the only state with no limits on both campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts. And as a result of that dynamic, six- and seven-figure donations to Missouri campaigns have become commonplace, and elected officials combine to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars in free meals, booze, trips and events tickets every year.
Efforts to rein in some of that spending during the 2016 legislative session cruised through the Missouri House but ran into fierce resistance in the Missouri Senate. Schatz was among the most outspoken critics.
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He called ethics reform a “solution in search of a problem” and an attempt to “curry favor with the media.” And he wasn’t alone, with Senate opposition ultimately resulting in ethics bills becoming watered down or killed outright.
But disappointment over the results of the 2016 legislative session have given way to optimism over the results of the 2016 election.
Missourians overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment reinstating campaign contribution limits. They also elected candidates for governor and attorney general who made corruption in state government the centerpiece of their campaigns.
Voters gave lawmakers a mandate to finally pass meaningful ethics reform, said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Bob Onder, a Republican state senator from St. Charles County.
“Last year there were quite a few legislators who weren’t so keen on pursuing ethics reform,” he said. “Some said voters didn’t really care about ethics reform. I think after this election, that will change.”
After a year of scandal in 2015 that saw two lawmakers resign in disgrace and the legislature’s reputation sullied, the General Assembly entered the 2016 session vowing to overcome years of gridlock and finally take ethics reform seriously.
Despite the platitudes, the session ended with only modest progress: A “cooling off period” requiring lawmakers to finish their terms and wait six months before they can legally become lobbyists; a prohibition on lawmakers working as political consultants while in office; and a ban on elected officials holding on to their campaign money if they become lobbyists.
The bill considered to be the most sweeping reform — a push to ban lobbyist gifts to elected officials — became mired in amendments in the Senate and ultimately fizzled out.
Enter Republican Gov.-elect Eric Greitens, who despite numerous allegations of unethical behavior during the campaign made cleaning up Jefferson City politics the centerpiece of his message.
Greitens routinely railed against “corrupt career politicians,” “well-paid lobbyists” and “special interest insiders” who he says are pulling the strings in the Missouri Capitol.
“I believe,” Greitens declares on his website, “that career politicians have turned Jefferson City into a corrupt, do-nothing embarrassment.”
Greitens’ success should improve ethics reform’s chances in 2017, said state Rep. Kip Kendrick, a Columbia Democrat who has promised to introduce a series of ethics reform bills that mirror planks in Greitens’ campaign platform.
“I am optimistic,” Kendrick said, “that (Gov.-Elect) Greitens will wield his newfound power in forcing members of his own party to reject any half-hearted, watered-down attempts at ethics reform, as we saw last (session), in favor of this aggressive and substantive action.”
The Senate has been the stumbling block for ethics reform, and in recent months the chamber has been embroiled in a pair of controversies.
The first was in August, when state Auditor Nicole Galloway, a Democrat, found the Senate was using a bank account operated outside the state treasury for the purpose of soliciting contributions from lobbyists to pay for meals for senators and staff.
Galloway said the bank account was both illegal and a potential conflict of interest. Her critique was nearly identical to a report in 2013 by then-Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican.
A handful of lobbyists representing real estate agents, auto dealers and energy companies chipped in a total of $6,000 for the fund during the 2016 session. Its current balance is roughly $1,700.
At first, Republican leadership bristled at the criticism. Two months later, however, it was announced that Senate officials were looking for ways to close the account while still paying for food during the legislative session.
The next round of criticism surrounded a Kansas City fundraiser on Nov. 16 that promised access to legislative leaders in exchange for large donations.
If a donor made a $5,000 contribution to the Missouri Senate Campaign Committee — which helps fund GOP candidates for the state Senate — they would get to have dinner with Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard and Majority Leader Mike Kehoe during the first two weeks of the 2017 legislative session. A $2,500 donation bought breakfast.
The identities of any donors who purchased time with GOP leaders during the Kansas City fundraiser won’t be revealed until the Missouri Senate Campaign Committee’s required disclosure report is turned in to the state ethics commission next month.
The laundry list of ethics proposals being floated for 2017 include a lobbyist gift ban, an extension of the waiting period before lawmakers can lobby, a ban on legislative staff doing paid campaign work for interest groups, a ban on campaign donations during the legislative session and extending prosecutorial powers to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
Inspired by the 2016 elections, Republican state Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph says he’ll push for legislation that would provide $100 tax credits to taxpayers who make qualifying political donations. The goal, he said, is to make government more accountable to the people.
“To get public policy that is good for the citizens,” he said, “we need to weaken the power of special interests to influence legislators.”
As for Schatz, he says ethics reform is more complicated than proponents will admit.
“If I’m invited to speak at a local Farm Bureau dinner and they provide me a meal, we have to have some reasonable common sense to keep that from violating the law,” he said. “When we start talking about outlawing lobbyists from buying someone a Coke or a coffee, I think we’re splitting hairs.”