Government & Politics

Will ‘Clean Missouri’ slow the revolving door that turns lawmakers into lobbyists?

With a signature and a scribbled smiley face, State Rep. Courtney Allen Curtis changed his future at one minute before midnight on Dec. 5.

The Ferguson Democrat’s resignation, after three terms in the Missouri House, was official just before the effective date of a constitutional amendment requiring ex-lawmakers to wait two years--instead of six months--before becoming lobbyists.

Curtis’ immediate focus is developing a new business. But he said he wants to leave the revolving door open to lobbying for Ferguson and other communities in his district.

“I would definitely be open to advising people who are looking to move the community forward,” Curtis said.

Curtis is one of three lawmakers who resigned before the end of their terms to sidestep a provision of Constitutional Amendment 1, the package of “Clean Missouri” reforms approved by voters on Nov. 6.

The measures overhaul Missouri’s legislative redistricting system, open legislative records to the public, lower campaign contribution limits and eliminate nearly all lobbyist gifts. But it was the extended wait to lobby that concerned Curtis and his former colleagues.

Rep. Kevin Corlew, R-Kansas City also resigned the day before the effective date of Amendment 1. Sen. Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat who lost his August primary, quit on Dec. 4, citing concerns about lobbying eligibility in a statement to The Associated Press.

According to a December 2017 report from the National Conference of State Legislatures, 10 other states have a two-year ban.

Other states, like neighboring Kansas, have no such barrier. An effort to establish a one-year ban, led by then-House Minority Leader Jim Ward, was quickly killed earlier this year.

Proponents of the expanded “cooling off period” say it is intended to ensure that while lawmakers are in office, they are focused on their constituents and what’s best for the state--not on a lucrative next career representing special interests in Jefferson City.

“We’re trying to remove as many potentials for conflict of interest as possible so that folks can stay focused on the right things,” said Clean Missouri campaign manager Sean Soendker Nicholson.

A two-year ban is much better than six months, said Beth Leech, a political scientist at Rutgers University, because it’s less likely that a firm will want to hire someone barred from lobbying for such an extended period.

While knowledge about legislative mechanics doesn’t fade quickly, Leech said, access and contacts can. That is especially true in a state with term limits like Missouri, where a lobbyist’s former legislative colleagues exit office more frequently. That makes the two-year wait more important, she said.

“In any state with term limits, lobbyists are already in a position of power over the legislators because often they’re more knowledgeable about process than the legislators are,” Leech said. “They’ve been at it longer.”

The six-month lobbying ban was in itself a reform. Before 2016, Missouri lawmakers could leave office one day and lobby the next. When legislators approved the six-month limit that year, then-Rep. Tony Dugger resigned a little more than a week before the law’s effective date.

Dugger, a Republican from Hartsville who now counts the Saint Louis Police Officers Association, Missouri American Water and the Missouri Association of Insurance Agents among his clients, was not eager to speak about the new two-year ban.

“It just is what it is,” Dugger said. “Each legislator has to decide, you know, for themselves.”

It will take time to determine whether the new rule is working as envisioned. Experts said many “cooling off” reforms are well-meaning but ineffective, undermined by ways to work around them.

For those who can’t lobby immediately, there are other less direct paths, such as becoming a “strategist” for other lobbyists.

“It’s well intentioned, but there’s just so many other things an ex-legislator could do that could still turn into influence with the Legislature,” said Thomas Holyoke, a political science professor at California State University, Fresno who studies lobbying.

Such workarounds might be more difficult in Missouri. The state’s standard for what constitutes lobbying is fairly broad. The Missouri Ethics Commission sets out a four-pronged definition, and someone meeting just one of the criteria is considered a lobbyist. This includes anyone who “spends $50 or more on behalf of public officials.”

It means that there is less opportunity for undermining the intent of the two-year ban.

“This law would seem to capture doing strategic consulting for a lobbying campaign as well as making lobbying contacts,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, which advocates for greater ethics and transparency in government.

“And if that is the case, then Missouri has a good revolving door law on the books.”

How violations will be dealt with remains unclear. Lawmakers who lobbied before the old six-month period ended could be investigated if a complaint was filed with the commission. It could issue a cease-and-desist letter enforceable through the courts.

For the moment, however, there is no compliance mechanism for the two-year ban.

“We are studying the constitutional amendment to determine enforcement provisions,” said Elizabeth Ziegler, the Missouri Ethics Commission’s executive director.

Jim Post, an emeritus professor of markets, public policy and law at Boston University, said the cooling off period is only effective if it’s rigorously enforced.

“The concept of a cooling off period is sound, but requires a strong compliance mechanism to be effective,” Post said.

Corlew, an attorney at Shook Hardy and Bacon, handles commercial and environmental matters for clients in a range of industries, including energy, food and beverage and agribusiness.

In a statement to supporters on social media, he said he didn’t plan to “wine and dine” politicians. But he added that he didn’t want “to tie the hands of my clients for two years if they need representation on a matter that involves a governmental entity. “

For Curtis, the allure of lobbying is tied to a lack of representation for minorities.

There aren’t many African American lobbyists and if legislators had experience, they had the knowledge and the working relationships, for them to wait two years could be a detriment to the community, Curtis said.

“It’s almost to the detriment of African American legislators,” Curtis said of the extended lobbying ban.

Leech said she sees it differently.

“It is a kind of expertise that money can buy,” Leech said.