Gov. Eric Greitens spent most of 2016 calling state government a “corrupt, do-nothing embarrassment.”
The only cure, he declared, was for state lawmakers to pass sweeping ethics reform, with the centerpiece being a ban on lobbyist gifts to elected officials.
But when the Missouri General Assembly adjourned Thursday for spring break, the fate of gift ban legislation remained unclear.
Many are pointing a finger at Greitens, whose reliance on so-called “dark money” to bankroll his inaugural and advance his political agenda have even the gift ban’s staunchest advocates questioning whether it goes far enough.
And critics of the gift ban wonder why it’s corrupt for a legislator to accept a meal or concert ticket from a lobbyist, but perfectly fine for the governor to accept things like trips on private planes paid for by anonymous donations routed through a nonprofit.
“We’re slapping a Band-Aid on a problem that requires surgery,” said state Rep. Lauren Arthur, a Kansas City Democrat.
In early February, Greitens campaign treasurer filed paperwork with the secretary of state’s office to establish A New Missouri Inc., a nonprofit organization that can accept unlimited contributions and won’t be required to disclose who is giving it money.
Greitens’ senior adviser, Austin Chambers, told The Star that the organization’s mission will be to advocate for the governor and his agenda. That could include advertising, event planning, social media and paying for the governor’s travel costs.
The nonprofit’s existence sparked immediate outrage, with Democrats accusing the governor of trying to circumvent voter-imposed contribution limits and the state’s Sunshine Laws.
Now some lawmakers say any ethics bill must include requirements that nonprofits that engage in political activity disclose where they are getting their money.
“I was in favor of disclosure of dark money before this governor even knew he wanted to be governor,” said state Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican. “Just because he’s a member of my party doesn’t change my position.”
State Rep. Justin Alferman, a Gasconade County Republican, said the controversy surrounding the governor’s nonprofit is affecting debate on the gift ban bill.
“It’s definitely complicated things,” said Alferman, who is sponsoring the legislation.
But he said the two issues — dark money and lobbyist gifts — shouldn’t get conflated. And there’s no reason, he said, why one ethics reform idea should die just because another one emerges.
“At the end of the day,” Alferman said, “the opponents of ethics reform are using this as a distraction. They’re using it as an excuse to kill the bill.”
Lawmakers and their staff collectively accept hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in lobbyist-provided meals, booze, trips and event tickets.
House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, has declared a lobbyist gift ban among his top legislative priorities for the past two years. To demonstrate his commitment to the idea, the House fast-tracked the legislation this year — introducing the bill Jan. 4 and sending it to the Senate Jan. 17.
The same day the House approved a gift ban, Greitens featured the idea prominently in his State of the State address to a joint session of the General Assembly. Shortly after the governor’s speech, a Senate committee held a public hearing on the legislation, leading many to think 2017 might be the year a ban finally gets across the finish line.
But that’s where progress has stalled.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, said Thursday that discussion has been taking place behind the scenes to try to figure out a path forward for the legislation. Last year, it was opposition in the Senate that stalled, and eventually killed, a gift ban.
“I suspect we’ll be getting back to ethics legislation at some point,” Richard said, “if we can find some common ground.”
But one of the chief critics of last year’s gift ban bill, Republican Sen. Dave Schatz of Franklin County, isn’t so sure.
“I just don’t see that we’re going to get anything moving at this point,” Schatz said.
Schatz’s biggest concern, he said, is that banning gifts won’t actually stop the practice. It’ll just force it underground.
“If you ban gifts, you won’t know what’s going on,” he said. “Right now it’s all available for public view. The voter can see what’s going on and hold an elected official accountable. Things shouldn’t go on in darkness.”
Parker Briden, the governor’s press secretary, said in an email to The Star that Greitens remains committed to ethics reform, and a key part of that is a ban on gifts from lobbyists.
“He has been working with the legislature,” Briden said, “and will continue to work with the legislature to pass ethics reform that includes a ban on gifts from lobbyists.”
Alferman remains cautiously optimistic that some version of his legislation will find its way to Greitens’ desk.
But as the end of the session on May 12 gets closer, Alferman’s optimism continues to fade.
“Every day that passes that the bill sits stagnant, I get more nervous,” he said. “I get more and more nervous every single day that it’s not going to get done.”