A month after winning his third term in the Missouri House as a Republican from Independence, Noel Torpey resigned before that new term had even begun.
Three days later, he registered with the Missouri Ethics Commission as a lobbyist, a job where he’ll lean on former associates to influence state energy policy for an organization called the Fair Energy Rate Action Fund.
That means he’ll be regularly facing off with Chris Kelly, a nine-term Democratic state representative from Columbia who retired from the House last year. He’s back in the Capitol — as a lobbyist for St. Louis-based utility Ameren Missouri.
Torpey and Kelly are among the latest in Missouri to leap straight from lawmaking to lobbying lawmakers. Their stories are far from unique.
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Registered lobbyists outnumber lawmakers in Jefferson City almost 5 to 1. Over the last decade, as voter-imposed term limits began driving elected officials out of office, lobbyists’ ranks have swelled with former legislators and staff cashing in on their expertise and connections.
To critics, the dynamic 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.
“You have people in their last few years of office who, rather than thinking about what’s best for their constituents, instead may be thinking about that next job,” said Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican.
He is sponsoring legislation that would force legislators to wait a year after leaving the General Assembly before they could lobby their former colleagues.
“It’s important to guard against not just actual impropriety,” he said, “but even the appearance of impropriety.”
Congress and at least 32 states have laws in place limiting when legislators can return to lobby their former colleagues, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Missouri and Kansas are not among them.
Unlike Missouri, however, Kansas has no term limits. So politicians in Topeka don’t come to a crossroads where they must either turn to lobbying or leave state government behind entirely.
Momentum in Missouri is building to change the rules in Jefferson City. In addition to Barnes’ bill in the House, Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard has included a two-year waiting period in an ethics reform bill he has listed among his priorities for the legislative session.
Running for office is a choice, Barnes said.
“Nobody is forcing you to be a state representative or state senator,” he said.
But even with the support of legislative leaders, the bill faces an uphill climb.
Since 2000, dozens of former lawmakers have strolled back into the Capitol as lobbyists. That includes House and Senate leaders, committee chairmen and a bipartisan mix of out-of-office legislators.
That pace appears to have accelerated this legislative session, with six state representatives who were in office just last year registering as lobbyists in recent weeks.
In addition to Torpey and Kelly, former House Insurance Committee chairman Chris Molendorp, a Belton Republican, now lobbies for the Missouri Hospital Association.
Former House Administration and Accounts Committee chairman Dwight Scharnhorst, a St. Louis County Republican, now lobbies for TracFone Wireless Inc.
Former Republican lawmaker Jeff Grisamore of Lee’s Summit now lobbies for Ozark Investments LLC.
And former Democratic lawmaker Jay Swearingen of North Kansas City, who ran unsuccessfully for Clay County presiding commissioner, now lobbies for a pair of out-of-state aviation companies.
“Ethics bills appear to be getting traction this year,” said Walter Siewert, director of the Center for Ethics in Public Life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. “That might be motivating people to make the leap now before they are no longer able to do it.”
Opponents of mandating a waiting period say the state should not try to limit a person’s future career opportunities. If too many limits are put in place, they contend, qualified people could be discouraged from serving in public office.
“If someone has a skill set where they can continue to be an advocate for the issues they care about, I’m not opposed to letting them do that,” said Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, a St. Charles Republican.
The longest “cooling off” period being proposed in Missouri right now would be two years. That’s about the norm for states around the country, and it is the law for U.S. senators. In the U.S. House it’s one year.
But Beth Rosenson, a professor of political science at the University of Florida and author of the book “The Shadowlands of Conduct: Ethics and State Politics,” doubts that waiting periods that short have the impact proponents suggest.
“If you put yourself in the mindset of a legislator,” she said, “having to wait a year is really not all that big of a restriction.”
A recent study by the Sunlight Foundation and the Center for Responsive Politics found that federal rules have done little to stem the flow of elected officials into lobbying. Many simply work for a company in an advisory role until the cooling-off period expires or take positions of leadership in an organization that doesn’t require registering as a lobbyist.
Because it is the legislators themselves who have to put these types of restrictions in place, Rosenson said, “they aren’t going to put in something like a five-year ban that would actually have an impact.”
Torpey, who had previously championed the idea of a waiting period for lawmakers to become lobbyists, admits the timing of his decision — just weeks after voters cast ballots to send him back to Jefferson City — “couldn’t have possibly been worse.”
But he said the decision to give up his legislative career came down to family.
Missouri may have a part-time legislature that meets only January to May, Torpey said, but “it’s more than a full-time job. It’s all week. It’s weekends. It’s nights.”
Being a lobbyist allows him to stay involved in public policy, he said, but with a more flexible schedule. So when the opportunity presented itself, Torpey said he felt he had to take it.
But running for public office is a choice, said Richard, the Senate majority leader. If the rules say you have to wait before pursuing a lobbying career, he said, then you know what you’re getting into when you run.
“If you want to go lobby, then go lobby,” said Richard, a Joplin Republican. “If you want to be a state rep or a senator, then be a state rep or a senator.”