Missouri lawmakers aren’t quite ready to give up lobbyist freebies. Same goes for five- and six-figure campaign checks.
But they have passed bills prohibiting lawmakers from serving as paid political consultants while in office, forcing lawmakers to wait six months after their term ends before becoming paid lobbyists and establishing restrictions on use of campaign funds by former legislators.
Cleaning up Missouri’s legislative ethics laws was a top priority of Republican leaders entering the 2016 session.
With about two weeks left before the General Assembly adjourns for the year, how much progress they’ve made toward that goal is in the eye of the beholder.
“We’re not going to allow to happen this year what’s happened every year I’ve been here, which has been to allow perfect to be the enemy of the good,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican who has championed ethics reform. “We’re going to put substantive, meaningful ethics reform on (Gov. Jay Nixon’s) desk, and if we’re able to do that, I’ll consider that a win.”
Others aren’t so sure.
“I think a lot of people around here are ready to throw up their hands and declare victory,” said Rep. John Rizzo, a Kansas City Democrat. “But there’s no way we can walk out of this session and tell our constituents we’ve had resounding success on ethics reform.”
Missouri is the only state in the nation with the trio of no caps on campaign contributions, no limits on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and no waiting period after leaving office before lawmakers can return to the Capitol as professional lobbyists.
As a result, six-figure campaign donations have become a normal part of Missouri politics; lawmakers collectively accept $900,000 a year in lobbyist-provided meals, booze, trips and event tickets; and lobbyists’ ranks have swelled with former legislators and staff cashing in on their expertise and connections.
Changing that dynamic took on new urgency after a series of controversies rocked the General Assembly in 2015.
It began in January 2015 with public outcry over the Missouri House Telecommunications Committee holding a public meeting at the Jefferson City Country Club. At the meeting, lawmakers were filmed by a local TV station dining on a meal paid for by the Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association.
In May, House Speaker John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican, was forced to resign in disgrace after The Kansas City Star revealed his relationship with a 19-year-old House intern. Sen. Paul LeVota, an Independence Democrat, resigned soon thereafter, facing allegations of sexual harassment from a pair of interns.
By June it was revealed that the FBI was investigating Diehl’s involvement in a $75,000 contract awarded by the Jackson County Legislature.
In August, Sen. Tom Dempsey resigned from the General Assembly a year early to join a lobbying firm connected to Republican megadonor Rex Sinquefield.
As the new legislative session kicked off in January, House leadership quickly moved a handful of ethics reform bills through the process and sent them to the Senate.
That’s where things got considerably more complicated.
The House wanted an outright ban on lobbyist gifts. The Senate has spent hours debating whether lobbyist freebies needed to be curtailed at all.
Last week the effort for an outright ban was abandoned as senators voted 23-8 for an amendment enacting a $40 spending limit per occasion, per lobbyist for each lawmaker. The bill was then set aside and still needs final approval in the Senate.
Republican Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph panned the changes to the bill.
“This means that one lobbyist could take us to breakfast,” Schaaf said. “Another lobbyist could take us to lunch. Another lobbyist could take us to supper. Another lobbyist could take us for a midnight snack or for a $40 bottle of wine.”
The House also wanted to prohibit lawmakers from lobbying for one year after they leave office.
Proponents of “revolving door” bans say allowing lawmakers to leave office one day 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.
Congress and at least 33 states have revolving-door bans in place, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Senate removed the waiting period from the House bill, saying instead lawmakers need only finish their term before returning to the Capitol to lobby their former colleagues.
Under a compromise sent to Nixon last week, lawmakers would be prohibited from lobbying for six months after their term expires.
Sen. Ryan Silvey, a Kansas City Republican, said revolving-door bans are an attempt to convince the public that lawmakers are serious about ethics reform without actually addressing real ethics reform.
“We’re all going to vote for it, because if we don’t vote for it, (the media) is going to write about it,” he said, later adding: “This is literally one of those times when you’re going to vote for this bill just so no one will be able to say you voted against it.”
The bill was approved on a 31-1 vote, with only Republican Sen. Ed Emery of Lamar voting against it.
The House and Senate were able to agree on prohibiting legislators from serving as political consultants while in office, which easily made its way to Nixon’s desk.
But even that bill has its critics, who say it falls short by not including legislative staff. The former chief of staff for Senate Appropriations Chairman Kurt Schaefer, for example, earned nearly $500,000 moonlighting as a political consultant for various candidates and campaigns in the seven years he worked for the Missouri Senate.
Another bill sent to Nixon limits the ways in which money in a campaign committee can be invested and bans elected officials from holding on to their campaign money if they become lobbyists.
It’s seen as aiming at the practices of former House speaker Steve Tilley, who resigned from office in 2012 to become a political consultant and lobbyist while still holding on to his massive campaign war chest of more than $1 million. He invested most of that campaign money in shares of a bank located in his hometown of Perryville.
Under the bill, former elected officials would have to dissolve their campaign committee if they register as a lobbyist with the Missouri Ethics Commission. Any money they have would need to be returned to donors, given to charity or donated to a political party organization. No campaign funds could be invested in businesses or hedge funds.
Sen. Jason Holsman, a Kansas City Democrat, has largely panned the legislature’s ethics reform efforts this year, arguing that the focus on lobbyist gifts and revolving-door bans demonstrates misplaced priorities.
“Until we attack and address unlimited campaign contributions,” Holsman said, “we’re never going to get to the root of the inherent problems in Jefferson City.”
Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, vehemently disagrees, calling the lobbyist gift and revolving-door bans “the two most important ethics reform bills this year.”
“Public officials,” he said, “should not use their positions for private profit.”