Six-figure campaign contributions don’t appear to be going away anytime soon.
Free steak dinners and lobbyist-provided box seats to ballgames look pretty safe, too.
And the revolving door between a legislative career and lobbying probably will keep spinning.
Missouri is the only state with the trio of no campaign contribution limits, no cap on gifts from lobbyists and no policy governing whether a legislator can leave office and go directly into lobbying.
When the General Assembly convened in January, there was much talk of changing that. More than a dozen ethics bills were filed, and legislative leaders spoke determinedly about tackling the issue.
Four months later — with less than a month to go before the state’s constitution mandates the legislature quit for the year — many advocates fear a tightening of ethics laws is unlikely this year.
“This legislature clearly isn’t interested in passing ethics reform,” said Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat.
Lobbyists in Missouri give out roughly $1 million a year in gifts to elected officials. They ranged from meals to out-of-state trips to tickets to last year’s World Series in St. Louis.
Missouri voters first approved campaign contribution limits by a 3-to-1 margin two decades ago, but the legislature repealed them in 2008.
Since then, campaigns have become increasingly dependent on big checks from wealthy donors and interest groups. Retired investor Rex Sinquefield of St. Louis, for example, has made around $30 million in contributions to various candidates, committees and political causes since the caps were repealed.
The Missouri Senate briefly debated legislation that would mandate lawmakers reimburse lobbyists for any gifts and banned legislators from lobbying work until two years after leaving office.
That expansive bill included many changes to ethics law, ranging from mandating political consultants register with the state Ethics Commission to banning the practice of reporting a gift to a committee instead of an individual lawmaker.
“That we have people who think getting $5,000 dinners from lobbyists is an appropriate way to come down here and behave is beyond me,” said Sen. Brad Lager, a Savannah Republican. “Give me a break.”
After a brief debate, the bill was set aside.
Democrats complained that it didn’t include any campaign contribution limits. Republicans questioned the need for several of the bill’s provisions, such as a policy banning the straight-to-lobbyist career tract for legislators and their staff.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, said even though there are parts of the bill he doesn’t like, he thinks some stricter ethics law can still get traction.
“Many things get done in the legislature incrementally,” he said. “We could take positive steps this year. So I’m still hopeful we’ll pass a bill.”
In the House, a bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Caleb Rowden of Columbia takes a much less sweeping approach. Among other provisions, it wouldimpose a $50 cap for any single gift from a lobbyist to a legislator
, as well as a $750 cap every three months on how much one lobbyist can give in gifts to an individual lawmaker.
“This doesn’t go as far as many people would like, but we have to be realistic enough to know what we can get done,” Rowden said. “This fills holes in our ethics laws, and it’s something that can get to the governor for him to sign it.”
House Speaker Tim Jones, a Eureka Republican who has opposed legislation changing Missouri’s ethics laws in previous years, said he supports Rowden’s legislation and “as soon as I get it in my hands, I intend to move it forward.”
That bill stands a good chance of passing, said Rep. Kevin McManus, a Kansas City Democrat.
“But it’s purely cosmetic,” he said. “It won’t really change the culture at the Capitol. I don’t think this is real reform.”
Sen. John Lamping, a St. Louis County Republican, shares McManus’ take on the House’s approach to ethics reform.
“It’s lame,” Lamping said. “Could I live with it? Yeah, but it’s so lame.”
Lamping sponsored the Senate ethics bill, but doesn’t see a desire among lawmakers to change the status quo.
“Too many people think that this is what it means to be a state legislator. That this” — largesse allowed under current rules — “is what the job is,” he said. “They’ve convinced themselves that the public doesn’t care. They’ll take a couple bad editorials every year and chock it up as just the cost of doing business.”
Rowden balks at the claims that Jefferson City culture is corrupt.
“The proponents of broader reform have to paint it to be the wild, wild West,” he said. “That’s just not true. When you sit down with a lobbyist, they have our time to make their case. That’s what it boils down to. You’re not buying a vote. You’re just buying some time.”
Critics counter that lobbyists would save their money if they didn’t believe that access was paying dividends.
Meanwhile, Democrats insist that campaign contribution limits must be part of any ethics package.
“If we’re talking about restoring the people’s trust in their government,” said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, “then how can we say that a $50 steak dinner should be banned because it will influence lawmakers but not a $250,000 (campaign) contribution?”
Republican legislative leaders have argued that contribution limits, which have proven highly controversial over the years, would sink any ethics bill.
“Campaign finance is just going to further complicate what will already be a big task getting ethics legislation moving forward,” Dempsey said.
Rowden agreed that contribution limits “just puts this bill in its grave.”
Even if legislators don’t think the culture at the Capitol is a problem, they still have to acknowledge the public does, said Rep. Caleb Jones, a Columbia Republican who is co-sponsoring Rowden’s legislation.
“Any time you have the public believing that something’s wrong,” he said, “then something’s wrong.”
The fear, McManus said, is that the legislature will pass an ineffective bill to convince the public it’s doing something.
“There is a danger that we will break out the ‘mission accomplished’ sign when we are pretty far from accomplishing anything,” McManus said. “And that will diffuse any momentum in the future toward real reform.”