A Missouri House committee approved four ethics reform measures Monday, the first day committees could hold public hearings on legislation for the year.
The bills dealt with a myriad of topics, from increasing how often lawmakers file personal financial disclosure forms to implementing a one-session cooling off period for lawmakers before they can become lobbyists after leaving office.
Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican and chairman of the House Government Oversight and Accountability Committee, said he expects at least three more bills to clear his committee next week.
The bills were passed in the “quickest time we possibly could do so,” Barnes said. “No ethics bill has ever been voted out of committee this early.”
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House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, vowed on the legislative session’s first day to make ethics reform the first topic the House tackles this year. With the committee vote today, it appears that promise will be fulfilled.
Meanwhile in the Senate, that chamber’s Rules, Joint Rules, Resolutions and Ethics Committee on Tuesday will hold a public hearing on a bill that, among other provisions, enacts a two-year cooling off period before lawmakers can become lobbyists.
The renewed emphasis on ethics reform comes after a year marked by political scandal in Missouri highlighted by the resignation of former House Speaker John Diehl and state Sen. Paul LeVota following revelations about their behavior towards interns.
Rep. Gina Mitten, a St. Louis Democrat, voted in favor of each of the House ethics bills Monday. However, she expressed concerns about some items that were not included.
For instance, legislation that prohibits elected officials from serving as paid political consultants does not include staff.
The Star reported last month that numerous senior staff members in both the House and Senate moonlight as paid political consultants on the side.
A handful of staffers in the Senate have even formed private companies to handle their consulting clients, making it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for the public to connect campaign money to the staffer in question.
One staffer in particular, who served nearly seven years as Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer’s chief of staff, earned more than $500,000 working for various campaigns, including a political action committee funded by the Missouri Association of Realtors.
“There are staffers who wield a whole lot of power in this building,” Mitten said, noting that under current law most staff doesn’t have to file the same personal financial disclosures that their legislative bosses do. “There’s not transparency, so why are we ignoring that?”
Barnes said he could support increased disclosure for staff, but political work is “without a doubt political speech” and therefore can’t be limited.
“States can regulate the conduct of elected officials to a far greater degree than the conduct of anyone else, including public employees,” Barnes said, adding that each individual legislator can decide whether to prohibit their employees from taking side jobs.
Barnes also poured cold water on Democratic calls for reinstating campaign contribution limits, saying he wouldn’t commit to even holding a vote on the issue.