Should Missouri lawmakers be permitted to accept gifts from lobbyists?
It’s a question the state legislature has wrestled with for years.
The House has repeatedly passed a bill aimed at turning off the steady stream of free meals, free booze, free travel and free event tickets.
And every year it dies in the Senate.
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But a new wrinkle may boost the push to rein in lobbyist largesse: A potential initiative petition could place a much more sweeping gift ban before voters later this year.
A Missouri House committee unanimously approved legislation Monday afternoon that would prohibit lobbyists from giving gifts to lawmakers directly but would allow gifts to groups, such as the entire General Assembly.
The House plans to pass the bill Thursday and send it to the Senate, where its fate remains unclear.
“One way or another it’s going to happen,” said Rep. Justin Alferman, a Gasconade County Republican and the bill’s sponsor. “There is clearly a movement afoot in Missouri to get this done. We should step up to the plate and pass it and not rely on initiative petitions to tackle our tough issues.”
Missouri law allows elected officials to accept an unlimited amount of lobbyist gifts, including travel, sporting event tickets and 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.
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.
Since then, lobbyist gifts have decreased every year.
In 2015, lobbyists doled out $609,000 in gifts, the majority going to groups.
That total fell to $522,000 in 2016 and around $400,000 for the first 11 months of 2017.
Diehl inadvertently furthered the cause of ethics reform later in 2015 when he was forced to resign from the House after The Star revealed he’d been exchanging sexually charged text messages with a 19-year-old House intern.
Diehl was replaced as speaker by Rep. Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican who made a lobbyist gift ban one of his top legislative priorities.
Richardson said that even though a gift ban has failed to gain much traction in the Senate, the increased attention to lobbyist gifts has resulted in lawmakers changing their behavior.
“The conversation and debate in and of itself is having an impact,” he said. “The amount of lobbyist gifts is going down. So there is great value in having the conversation about what kind of legislature we hope to be.”
Alferman’s bill is identical to the one that sailed through the House last year on a 149-5 vote.
While banning direct gifts to lawmakers, the bill allows group gifts as long as every lawmaker and statewide official is invited with 72 hours’ notice.
“You have to send notice of the event to the auditor and the attorney general,” Alferman said. “If you want to skirt this law, you have to send notice to the two offices in charge of rooting out corruption and fraud. There’s not a single lobbyist in this building who is going to throw away a lucrative position to give a gift.”
Critics of the bill, including the group pushing for the ballot measure enacting more stringent restrictions on gifts, say allowing group gifts creates a massive loophole.
In 2014, for instance, five Republican lawmakers attended a $3,000 dinner paid for by lobbyists. Most of the lobbyists who picked up the tab reported the meal as a gift to the entire General Assembly. Details of the meal were revealed only because some lobbyists reported their share of the expense as gifts to the individual lawmakers in attendance.
“The General Assembly as a whole has shown it has no interest in reforming itself and shutting down the lobbyist gift culture,” said Sean Nicholson, executive director of Clean Missouri, which is supporting a ballot measure that, among several items, would ban any gift to lawmakers worth more than $5.
“If you’re not going to address the group gifts,” he added, “it’s a half measure.”
Democrats offered an amendment to Alferman’s bill that would have taken out the group gift exemption. It was defeated.
“It doesn’t matter if the gift is expensive concert tickets and a steak and lobster dinner or a minor trinket — lobbyist gift-giving creates the appearance of a government for sale,” said Rep. Deb Lavender, a St. Louis County Democrat. “Elected officials receive a taxpayer-funded salary to serve the public, and that should be enough.”
Despite reservations from some Democrats, the bill is expected to once again easily clear the House. And Senate leaders have vowed to give gift ban legislation a fair shot this year. But whether the bill can overcome past divisions is unclear.
Some senators have opposed an outright ban on gifts and instead pushed to implement a cap.
Kansas, for example, 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.
Others oppose the House bill because they contend it doesn’t go far enough, either because it allows group gifts or because it doesn’t include other long-sought ethics reform proposals.
Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican and longtime proponent of ethics reform legislation, said he doesn’t believe the legislature is capable of reining in its own behavior.
“They may do something they’ll label as ethics reform,” he said. “But I doubt anything meaningful will actually get done. That will have to be accomplished by an initiative petition.”
Alferman remains optimistic.
“I get what (Sen. Schaaf) is saying and I understand his frustration,” he said. “But we’re sent here to try to get things done. We can’t abdicate our duty by saying, ‘We can’t do this. It’ll have to be handled by the voters.’ ”