The Missouri General Assembly’s annual ritual of talking its way out of meaningful ethics reform is well underway.
The Senate has already watered down what ought to be a simple measure to enact — a sensible waiting period to stop lawmakers from leaving their seats one day and becoming lobbyists the next.
But that would be “a solution in search of a problem,” said Sen. Dave Schatz, a Republican from Franklin County. As though public suspicion that a legislator would vote a certain way in hopes of securing a lucrative lobbying job isn’t a problem.
More than 30 states require a “cooling off” period before a lawmaker can join the lobbying ranks, but Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat who voted against the measure, told a reporter he thought a moratorium would be unconstitutional.
Schatz argued that a waiting period would deny legislators the “freedom to pursue happiness that’s guaranteed to us in the Constitution.”
That’s right. In the Missouri legislature, happiness is a lobbyist gig awaiting you after term limits.
The best the Senate could do was agree to a measure banning legislators from resigning their office in the middle of a term to accept a lobbying job. That’s actually happened, so the Senate bill is a baby step forward. And so are measures the Senate approved involving campaign accounts belonging to former legislators.
But baby steps are a long walk from substantive reform.
A House bill to ban lawmakers from accepting freebies from lobbyists also teetered into a black hole in the Senate.
Schatz worried that he might run afoul of a new law if, say, he wandered into someone’s office and grabbed a slice of pizza that turned out to have come from a lobbyist. Now that would be a problem. We say that if the senator decides the pursuit of happiness leads him to a slice of cheese and pepperoni, he can purchase it himself.
Sen. Kiki Curls, a Kansas City Democrat who frequently places near the top of the list of recipients of lobbyists’ gifts, worried that she wouldn’t be able to help her constituents by passing on gifts from lobbyists.
Sorry, but a favor is a favor, and passing one on to constituents doesn’t make a lawmaker any less beholden.
Senate leaders still hold out hope for a gift ban, but the issue has been shelved for now. And the ethics reform that’s most needed — limits on campaign contributions — isn’t even up for discussion. A constructive measure to disclose the names of people who make big monetary donations to nonprofits with political missions narrowly failed in the Senate.
The legislature is displaying its sense of entitlement in another way. Leaders and lawyers for the House and Senate are asserting that emails of lawmakers and their staffers are not open to the public under Missouri’s Sunshine Law.
While the legislature itself is a public body, and subject to public disclosure, the members are not, they reason.
Lawmakers need to rethink that stance and draft legislation that eliminates the ambiguity. State employees are subject to the Sunshine Law, and it makes no sense that legislators’ correspondence is exempt. The public deserves to have access to the inner workings of lawmaking.
Other states are grappling with the same issue. In Kansas, lawmakers are exempted from the Open Records Act, and there have been controversies about whether state employees can avoid transparency by doing public work on personal computers.
But after a series of scandals, the Missouri legislature isn’t in a good position to say, “just trust us.” The idea that the public is watching may be just the incentive to stay out of trouble.