One of the most pleasant surprises of Missouri politics 2015 is the General Assembly’s sudden interest in ethics reform and cleaning up the legislature’s sorry image.
Note that I didn’t say “sweeping” ethics reform. But some small things are happening. They’re worth noting.
Let’s begin with this: Republicans who run the joint wouldn’t have to lift a finger on this issue. They have overwhelming, veto-proof majorities and, given the Democrats’ lackluster performance in November, the GOP should maintain big majorities for years to come.
So give them some credit.
What’s finally changed? Pundits all over the state, including yours truly, have pounded on Jeff City’s wild, wild West ways for years, and that’s had an impact, lawmakers told me this week. The key here: No other state in the union allows unlimited campaign donations and unlimited gifts from lobbyists (read: sports tickets, concert tickets, airfare to pleasant locales).
It’s pathetic, a ripe recipe for corruption, and lawmakers know it. They’re finally tired of soaking in their own dirty tub.
The session is still young, but already the Senate has passed a bill that bars lawmakers from resigning their seats one day and becoming lobbyists the next.
Instead, a two-year cooling-off period is imposed. Lawmakers, though, made sure they wouldn’t be affected. The provision affects only those who take office in 2017 or after.
But take what you can get.
The bill also bans lobbyist-paid, out-of-state travel; increases the requirements for reporting gifts; and bars lawmakers from serving as paid consultants.
Now the matter is before the House, where Speaker John Diehl already this session has ended the long-standing practice of committees holding hearings not in the Capitol, but in a nearby country club.
And he halted the distasteful tradition of lobbyist-catered dinners in hearings where issues important to those same lobbyists were under review.
Yes, it was that bad, folks.
The House Republican whose committee is handling ethics, Jay Barnes, expects the House to pass its own bill. He sounds determined to get something done.
Missouri, he says, “has the weakest ethics laws in the country.”
Barnes is looking at placing a $30 cap on gifts. Nothing under consideration so far would end $1 million campaign donations. That fight may come later.
But again, given this issue’s sorry history and the Capitol’s sordid reputation, take what you can get.