Missouri lawmakers and their staffs received $347,368 in gifts from lobbyists during the first six months of 2017.
That’s a lot of free meals, booze and concert tickets — roughly $1,760 per lawmaker for a span that included the legislative session.
But it’s actually less than the same period last year, according to Missouri Ethics Commission data. Lobbyists then doled out $375,284 in legislative freebies.
In fact, lobbyist gifts have declined every year since 2013, when lawmakers and staff took $753,670 during the first six months and $954,995 overall.
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Observers point to numerous factors contributing to the decline, from increased public scrutiny on lobbyist gifts to a series of embarrassing legislative scandals two years ago.
Regardless of the reason, ethics reform advocates say the drop is a sign that the tide is turning and lobbyist gifts are increasingly seen as a potential political liability.
“When you go back home to your district, do you think your constituents will respond better to ‘I don’t take lobbyist gifts’ or ‘I take lots of lobbyist gifts, but it’s OK’?” said state Rep. Justin Alferman, a Gasconade County Republican and the sponsor of lobbyist gift ban legislation. “And as long as we keep the issue on the forefront, it makes it harder and harder to be a legislator who takes copious amounts of lobbyist gifts.”
Missouri law allows elected officials to accept an unlimited amount of gifts from lobbyists, from travel to sporting event tickets to rounds of golf.
It wasn’t long ago that the no-limit culture translated into lobbyist-funded buffets as a regular feature in Capitol committee hearing rooms and legislative offices.
That dynamic largely changed in 2015.
Early that year, a Jefferson City TV station filmed the Missouri House Telecommunications Committee holding a public meeting at the Jefferson City Country Club, where lawmakers dined on a meal paid for by the Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association.
Then-House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican, responded to the public outcry by banning lobbyist meals at House committee hearings and prohibiting those hearings from taking place outside the Capitol.
“My guess is that is a big factor in the drop in lobbyist gift totals,” said Jeremy LaFaver, a former Democratic lawmaker from Kansas City who is now a lobbyist in both Jefferson City and Topeka.
Gifts to groups, such as legislative committees or party caucuses, totaled $587,820 in 2014. That figure dropped to $327,747 in 2015. Meanwhile, gifts to individual lawmakers increased during that same period, from $262,744 in 2014 to $281,449 in 2015.
“When John Diehl ended that practice, he got a lot of heat from the Republican caucus,” Alferman said. “There were people who actually asked, ‘How am I going to get food?’ But look at things now, and it’s clearly not hard. It does not hinder the ability of legislators to do their jobs when they are not being fed by the industries they are supposed to be regulating.”
Diehl furthered the cause of legislative ethics reform later that year when he was forced to resign after The Star revealed he’d exchanged sexually charged text messages with a 19-year-old House intern.
The months following Diehl’s resignation were dominated by more legislative scandal, culminating with the resignation of state Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat accused by two of his former interns of sexual harassment.
Rep. Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, replaced Diehl as speaker of the Missouri House and vowed to restore public faith in the Missouri General Assembly.
Sitting atop his agenda: a ban on lobbyist gifts to elected officials.
For two years, a gift ban has been the first bill approved by the Missouri House. Yet each year, it has languished in the Senate.
“It is frustrating to send that bill to the Senate and see them sit on it for four months and not do a damn thing with it,” Alferman said. “It tells me that they aren’t serious about doing any sort of lobbyist gift reform.”
The Star’s tally of $347,000 worth of lobbyist gifts accepted during the first six months of 2017 does not include more than $630,000 worth of TV and digital ads paid for by the liberal organization Vote Vets that was disclosed the the state ethics commission as a gift to the entire Missouri General Assembly.
LaFaver said there are definitely ways short of an outright ban on gifts where Missouri law can be improved. He pointed to Kansas, which limits the amount of money that lobbyists can spend on gifts such as sports tickets to lawmakers at $100 but places no restriction on the amount that they can spend on food or alcohol.
The Star reported earlier this year that lobbyists spent more than $435,000 on all gifts to Kansas lawmakers during the first three months of 2017.
LaFaver questions whether lobbyist gifts have much of an impact either on policy outcomes or the public’s perception of the legislature.
“Whether the public actually cares, I don’t know,” he said. “But there is certainly the perception in Jefferson City that they do.”
An outright ban on lobbyist gifts, LaFaver said, would likely just lead to elected officials using campaign accounts to reimburse lobbyists for meals, travel and other expenses. It’s a practice critics say dances on the edge of what the law allows.
“If you’re using campaign money, it’s a lot harder to track,” LaFaver said. “When it’s allowed and transparent, people seem to be naturally curbing their behavior.”
Alferman said he plans to continue pushing for a lobbyist gift ban as long as he’s in office. He noted that the number of people who have chosen not to take any lobbyist gifts is on the rise.
In 2015, only 26 out of 163 House members and eight out of 34 senators reported that they accepted no gifts from lobbyists.
Last year, 55 House members and 10 senators reported that they accepted no gifts.
“This isn’t just talking points for me,” Alferman said. “I don’t like to be lumped in with the perception that legislators go down to Jeff City to serve themselves. I’d like to get to the point where it’s toxic for a legislator to take a lobbyist gift.”