Government & Politics

Missouri lawmakers vow once again to tackle ethics reform

After a year marked by political scandal, the Missouri General Assembly is feeling the heat to overcome years of stalled progress to finally pass ethics reform. Lawmakers return to the statehouse Jan. 6 for the opening of the 2016 session.
After a year marked by political scandal, the Missouri General Assembly is feeling the heat to overcome years of stalled progress to finally pass ethics reform. Lawmakers return to the statehouse Jan. 6 for the opening of the 2016 session.

Will 2016 be the year the Missouri General Assembly revamps campaign finance and ethics laws considered to be among the loosest in the nation?

After a year marked by political scandal, the General Assembly is feeling the heat to overcome years of stalled progress to finally pass ethics reform.

Lawmakers returning to the statehouse Jan. 6 for the opening of the 2016 session are hopeful.

“The general public is ready for us to get something done,” said Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, a Jefferson City Republican. “It’s time we actually make progress instead of standing up at the end of the session and saying, ‘Well, we got really close.’ 

If history is any indication, though, the legislature isn’t capable of reining in its own bad behavior, said Sen. Rob Schaaf, a St. Joseph Republican.

“Just look at last session,” Schaaf said. “We couldn’t even pass a watered-down ethics bill. I don’t see anything meaningful coming out of the legislature.”

No other state has the trio of unlimited campaign contributions, unlimited lobbyist gifts to elected officials and no restrictions on when legislators can become lobbyists.

Lawmakers have vowed to tackle the issue for years, with Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard famously quipping last year that it was time to “clear this up before somebody gets indicted.”

Yet each legislative session comes and goes with nothing to show for their efforts.

House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Poplar Bluff Republican, has said over and again that ethics reform will be among the first bills passed out of the House in 2016. He is backing a series of bills that include a ban on lobbyist gifts and a one-year waiting period before legislators could become lobbyists.

The goal, he said, is to “improve the environment in Jefferson City and restore the public’s trust.”

A look back at 2015 shows why the public trust may need to be restored.

The year began 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.

The then-House speaker, John Diehl, a St. Louis County Republican, responded by banning lobbyist meals at House committee hearings and prohibiting those hearings from taking place outside the Capitol. The move shut down a practice that had been a fixture of House committee hearings for years.

A few weeks later came news of Missouri Auditor Tom Schweich’s suicide, followed not long after by the suicide of one of his top aides, Spence Jackson. How much Missouri’s rancorous political climate played into the deaths continues to be debated.

In May, Diehl was forced to resign in disgrace after The 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.

Dozens of women — from lawmakers to lobbyists to staff and interns — later told The Star that sexual harassment is commonplace in the Missouri Capitol.

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 legislature a year early to join a lobbying firm connected to GOP megadonor Rex Sinquefield. Dempsey was the seventh former lawmaker to become a lobbyist in the last year, although he said he is unlikely to lobby his former colleagues in Missouri.

The year ended with Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder asking the U.S. attorney’s office for the eastern district of Missouri to investigate campaign finance improprieties within his own campaign committee. The aide allegedly at the center of the investigation has longstanding ties to Steve Tilley, a prominent Jefferson City lobbyist and former speaker of the Missouri House.

“Is the public’s perception of the problems in Jefferson City worse than it actually is? Yes,” Richardson said in an interview with The Star earlier this year. “But I don’t think anyone can look at the last 10 months and say there are not substantial things that could be done to make things better. And that’s what we’re going to do.”

The House recently approved new sexual harassment and intern policies, including mandatory training for lawmakers and staff, a requirement that outside counsel investigate harassment complaints against legislators and a ban on romantic relationships between legislators and subordinates, including interns.

Now attention turns to broader ethics reform proposals, an area where lawmakers have struggled to find consensus.

House leadership lined up last year behind a cap on lobbyist gifts, an idea Senate leadership has opposed. The Senate proposed a two-year cooling-off period before lawmakers can become lobbyists, while the House approved only a one-year waiting period.

Senate leadership has signaled they might be open to campaign contribution limits, an idea that Democrats argue must be included in any ethics reform measure. House leaders have expressed little interest in reinstating the voter-imposed limits that lawmakers eliminated in 2008.

“It’s a shame, because the real problem is that only a small fraction of the populace has a say-so in elections,” Schaaf said. “It’s the funders that really drive public policy.”

A recent analysis by The Star found that 10 individuals and groups make up a quarter of all large political contributions since 2011.

Rep. Sheila Solon, a Blue Springs Republican, said any ethics reform must “get to the root of the problem, which is the culture of the Capitol.”

To that end, she is proposing a ban on alcohol and tobacco use in the Capitol.

“The Capitol is a public building and workplace,” she said. “The legislature needs to set a good example as a healthy and safe workplace by banning alcoholic beverages in the state Capitol and on the Capitol grounds. The work we produce needs to be above repute, and our policy on alcohol should be the same as other workplaces.”

Others have suggested shortening the legislative session, which currently runs roughly four and a half months, or reducing the number of seats in the 163-member Missouri House. Neither of these proposals is expected to get much traction.

Kehoe said the strategy will likely be to try to pass each ethics proposal individually in its own legislation instead of trying to create a catch-all bill. The hope, he said, is to avoid ethics reform getting bogged down in the legislative process.

“It’s hard to pass those big grand-slam bills,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll see a big ethics bill this year. We’re going to try to pass several smaller bills.”

Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat who has called for sweeping ethics reform legislation for years, is unimpressed with the direction the legislature is heading.

“So far there have been a number of measures filed that make some progress,” he said. “But let’s not kid ourselves. They are not significantly dramatic.”

Many lawmakers will pay lip service to ethics reform, Schaaf said, but have no intention of actually implementing meaningful changes.

“If we want real ethics reform,” he said, “it’ll have to be done by the people through an initiative petition.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock