Ethics bills draw little praise from Missouri legislators they would regulate

A bipartisan push to enact tighter ethics rules for Missouri legislators ran into a wall of skepticism at a state House public hearing on Tuesday.

Rep. Don Gosen, R-Chesterfield, couldn’t see a reason to impose a two-year waiting period on former legislators who become lobbyists, questioning whether anyone had exercised “undue influence.”

Rep. Mike Colona, D-St. Louis, challenged the idea of limiting meals that lobbyists buy for legislators, saying legislators would just “find another loophole to get around it.”

And Rep. John McCaherty, R-High Ridge, objected to barring legislators from being paid by fellow legislators for political consulting, which he called “limiting what someone can do for a living.”

Ethics laws affect every legislator and thus, engender 197 strong opinions in the 197-member General Assembly. But from the broad array of options presented, the General Laws Committee will craft a package to present to the full House, promised the chairman, Rep. Caleb Jones, R-California.

Missouri is the lone state that sets no limits on gifts from lobbyists or campaign contributions from political donors, a distinction that Gov. Jay Nixon and Secretary of State Jason Kander, both Democrats, have urged the Republican-led Legislature to change.

But seven weeks into the legislative session, the bills are moving slowly. GOP leaders, especially in the Senate, have indicated they’re more likely to tackle lobbying rules than reinstate contribution limits, which were repealed in 2008.

Their main argument: that transparency — strict reporting of campaign donations — is better than limits, because limits don’t stop the flow of money.

However, Rep. Kevin McManus, D-Kansas City, said Missouri’s system isn’t so transparent. Donors can conceal their identities by funneling money through multiple political action committees or sham nonprofit entities.

His bill would attack that practice with tougher enforcement mechanisms — for example, barring a candidate from receiving money from a committee that drew the majority of its funding from a single individual.

McManus’ bill also would set contribution limits ranging from $500 for state House candidates to $2,600 for those running for statewide offices. That approach is backed by Kander, the state’s chief elections official.

But some members of the House committee said the 136-page bill went too far, for instance, by rewarding whistleblowers who provided tips about ethics violations and letting the Missouri Ethics Commission keep part of the fines they collect.

“We’re not just going to give them fines,” said Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Tuscumbia. “We’re going to work really, really hard to make sure they come after us.” He said it was “very politically correct to jump on the current ethics and say how horrible we are.”

McManus’ approach drew praise, though, from Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, who said he was taken aback by the attitude that strict ethics rules would impose “too onerous a burden.”

Some legislators complained that the monthly reports that lobbyists file mischaracterize the “gifts” legislators receive. They said their reported freebies have include engraved awards, an unsolicited package containing a ham and invitations to receptions where the legislator stopped by but didn’t eat.

Jones, the chairman, sponsors a bill that he said would get rid of “a lot of the heartache” on that issue by exempting from reports items valued at less than $9. He also would put annual caps of $900 per legislator on lobbyist-provided meals and another $900 on gifts, such as tickets to sporting events.

Colona, however, said “full and complete disclosure” was a better answer. “That way, if you want to argue that a $5 donut bought my vote for CenturyLink … go ahead,” he said.

Legislators are paid roughly $36,000 a year. They also receive mileage reimbursements and an expense allowance of about $104 a day to cover meals and lodging in the capital. The legislative session runs from January through mid-May, but legislators say they handle constituent matters year-round.

Jones said the committee probably would vote next week on a comprehensive ethics bill as well as “smaller bites of the apple.”

“It’s my hope it helps the public realize, we’re down here doing government work, public service, and trying to make a difference in the state of Missouri. This isn’t ‘House of Cards,'” he said, referring to the Netflix political drama.

The bills are HB1258, HB1260, HB1267, HB1340 and HB1440.