Rep. Tony Dugger has until Aug. 28 to make an important decision.
Does he want to be a lobbyist?
After eight years in the Missouri House, Dugger will be forced from office by term limits in January. And under a new law passed by lawmakers and signed by Gov. Jay Nixon, legislators must wait six months after the end of their term before they can return to the Capitol to lobby their former colleagues.
That would delay a lawmaker’s lobbying career until after the next legislative session.
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Here’s the catch: The new law doesn’t go into effect until Aug. 28. If a legislator resigns before then, the waiting period won’t apply to them.
“Lobbying is definitely an option on my plate,” said Dugger, a Hartville Republican who chairs the House Select Committee on Financial Institutions and Taxation. “I’ll have to decide before the end of August if that’s what I want to do.”
Voter-imposed term limits are forcing 22 members of the Missouri House and three members of the Senate out of office this year. A couple of senators are running for statewide office, and a few representatives are vying for seats in the Senate.
Others may be contemplating joining the growing ranks of former legislators and staff who over the last decade have cashed in on their expertise and connections to become professional lobbyists.
To critics, allowing a legislator to enter the Capitol one day as an elected official and return the next as a lobbyist erodes public trust and runs the risk of corrupting policy. It fuels a perception that lawmakers are casting votes to curry favor with potential future employers.
That’s why legislative leaders pushed for Missouri to join 33 other states that have enacted a waiting period before lawmakers can return to the Capitol to lobby. Known as a “revolving-door” law, the legislation that finally made it to the governor’s desk requires Missouri lawmakers to finish their terms and wait six months before they can legally become lobbyists.
“Public officials should not use their positions for private profit,” Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, said during debate on the revolving-door bill.
Opponents of the legislation, however, said it was just window dressing. After a year marked by scandal — including the resignations of two lawmakers over inappropriate conduct with interns — the General Assembly entered 2016 with legislative leaders promising to pass ethics reform.
What ultimately was accomplished will do little to change the culture in Jefferson City, said Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat.
“We concoct these solutions that don’t do anything but make us feel good, and someone can write a story saying we’ve addressed the problem,” Holsman said.
Even some of the biggest proponents in Missouri of a revolving-door law were left somewhat disappointed with the final product. Several bills would have made the waiting period two years. The House approved a one-year waiting period.
But the Senate initially balked at the idea, approving a bill that only mandated lawmakers finish their term before lobbying.
Six months became the compromise position in order to get a bill to the governor.
Wally Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, called the compromise “a very weak Band-Aid on a gaping ethics wound.”
The measure won’t do anything to address conflicts of interest or influence peddling, Siewert said, and it’s even less likely to “do anything about the dangerous issue of the appearance of conflicts of interest and inappropriate influence peddling.”
Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat who is not running for another term in the House, has a unique perspective on the issue. He actually began his career in Missouri as a lobbyist, working for groups like Operation Breakthrough, the Missouri Coalition of Children’s Agencies and the ACLU of Eastern Missouri.
He decided to run for the Missouri House in 2012.
Unless he resigns before Aug. 28, which he said he doesn’t plan to do, he’d have to wait until after the 2017 session before he could lobby for any of his former clients again.
“We talk about free enterprise and free markets a lot around here,” LaFaver said. “We shouldn’t restrict people who take the knowledge they’ve acquired and want to go out and make a living.”
Dugger said lobbyists are often demonized by the general public, but “almost everyone has a lobbyist up here representing them.
“If you’re in the cattle business, or whatever bank you bank at, you have a lobbyist up here representing your interests,” he said. “There are lobbyists up here protecting just about everybody’s interests.”
In addition to arguing that the revolving-door law is unconstitutional, Dugger contends it’s also ineffective. If he wants to lobby, “there are other options besides having to resign early. I could come back and work in a fashion where I wasn’t officially lobbying.”
Other critics of a revolving-door law have made a similar argument: Someone could return to the Missouri Capitol with a job consulting for a lobbying firm or as a “government affairs director” of an organization while waiting to register as a lobbyist.
That’s the situation in Washington, D.C.
In 2007, Congress passed the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which prohibited ex-senators and top executive branch officials from lobbying Congress for two years after their service ended. Former representatives had to wait one year.
But a 2015 study of the law found it didn’t have the sweeping impact proponents had hoped.
Many former elected officials immediately got jobs in government relations or were employed as counsel to lobbying-oriented law firms, creating what some have dubbed “stealth lobbyists.”
“There’s no perfect bill that’s going to legislate morality,” LaFaver said. “There’s always going to be the opportunity to game the system.”
Missouri law has four criteria that define a legislative lobbyist, and meeting any one means a person must register with the Missouri Ethics Commission and disclose his or her clients and spending.
However, “we don’t have monitors at the Capitol,” said James Klahr, executive director of the Missouri Ethics Commission. “Is it possible there are people over there right now who should be registered but aren’t? It’s possible. I can’t tell you that it’s not happening.”
Klahr said the commission hasn’t received any complaints recently about unregistered lobbyists.
One aspect of the new Missouri law winning praise is the provision that requires lawmakers to finish out their terms in office before the six-month waiting period even begins.
Several high-profile resignations in recent years sparked concern about the practice, none more so than former House Speaker Steve Tilley.
As one of his final acts as speaker of the Missouri House in the summer of 2012, Tilley appointed a blue-ribbon commission to look at options to update the state’s transportation infrastructure. Among the people he appointed to the board was a former chairman of Fred Weber Inc., a highway construction company.
Tilley resigned from office a few months later to become a lobbyist, and his first client was Fred Weber Inc. He then helped push to pass a sales tax hike that would have raised millions dollars for highway construction. After lawmakers approved the sales tax increase it was soundly rejected by voters.
Former Rep. Noel Torpey, an Independence Republican, resigned just a few weeks after winning re-election in 2014 and quickly registered to become a lobbyist. His seat was vacant through the 2015 legislative session.
Former Senate President Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican, resigned more than a year early to work for the lobbying firm of GOP megadonor Rex Sinquefield, although Dempsey’s new job has yet to bring him back to the Missouri Capitol.
LaFaver said there is always a chance he could return to lobby in the Capitol one day. But he doubts that will happen any time soon.
“The No. 1 reason I wanted to leave this job is because it takes me away from my family in Kansas City,” he said. “So I have very, very little desire to spend more time in Jefferson City next legislative session.”
Dugger said he wouldn’t even contemplate his future until he’s had some time back home after the session ends. After 26 years in elected office — four years as a presiding commissioner, 14 as a county clerk and eight years in Jefferson City — he doesn’t think he has to rush to any decisions.
“I have a farm back home, a cow and calf operation,” he said. “I have lots of options. We’ll see what happens. I’m certainly not going to decide during the session. After that, I’ll weigh out my options.”