Government & Politics

Missouri lawmaker pushes to ban alcohol, smoking in Capitol

If Sheila Solon’s proposal to ban booze and smokes in the Missouri Capitol isn’t the least popular piece of legislation filed this year, it’s at least in the conversation.

Solon, a Republican state representative from Blue Springs, isn’t surprised by the lukewarm reception.

Drinking in Missouri Capitol offices is an old tradition, with lobbyists picking up the tab for much of the beer and liquor. On occasion the revelry has spilled out of lawmakers’ offices, such as when the House garnered national attention for a post-party evening debate that featured tinfoil hats, a toy helicopter and, eventually, some heated rhetoric.

“There is a feeling,” Solon said, “that this is just the way it’s always been and there’s no need to change it.”

Reaction to her legislation is best summed up by Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican who before being elected to the Senate served as speaker of the Missouri House.

“That’s not on my radar,” Richard said. “If an elected representative wants to have a beer in their office or smoke a cigar, that’s their choice. I’m not going to mandate behavior as far as those kinds of things. They can do it themselves. They’re adults.”

Other state employees, such as those who work across the street from the Capitol in the Truman Building, aren’t allowed to smoke or drink alcohol in the office. The same goes for the more than 400 Missouri Department of Transportation buildings around the state.

In fact, smoking and drinking are prohibited everywhere else in the Missouri Capitol except in the offices of legislators. House Democrats banned smoking in their offices but have never managed to persuade the Republican majority to follow suit.

Solon’s bill would ban smoking in the Capitol and prohibit alcohol use except for certain pre-approved events.

“There’s a feeling of entitlement among (legislators) that we’re somehow special,” Solon said. “The public can’t drink and smoke in the building, so why can we? I mean, come on, this is a workplace. How many people are allowed to drink and smoke in their workplace?”

Solon says she’s been troubled by the situation for years, even before she was first elected to the Missouri House in 2010.

But the events of the last year motivated her to take action.

House Speaker John Diehl was forced to resign after his relationship with a 19-year-old House intern was revealed by The Kansas City Star. Sen. Paul LeVota resigned shortly afterward over allegations of sexual harassment by two former interns. Meanwhile, dozens of women spoke up publicly last summer about what they described as widespread sexual harassment in the Capitol.

Lawmakers responded to the scandals by rewriting the Missouri House intern and sexual harassment policies. They’ve also begun moving legislative ethics reform bills at breakneck pace, including legislation banning lobbyist gifts and implementing a one-year waiting period for elected officials before they can become lobbyists.

Banning alcohol in the Capitol won’t magically fix problems of sexual harassment or the mistreatment of women, Solon said, which run much deeper than drinking. But if the goal is to improve the culture of the Capitol, as well as the legislature’s public image, Solon believes it should be part of the conversation.

“I think most people would be shocked to learn this hasn’t already been done,” Solon said. “If we want to get to the root of the problem in Jefferson City, then we need to take away the feeling of entitlement among (legislators).”

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, alcohol bans in capitols are common.

Solon’s bill would put Missouri in line with its neighbors in Kansas, where lawmakers voted last year to allow alcohol to be served at special statehouse events.

Previously, alcohol was completely banned in the Kansas Statehouse, and even the modest change drew criticism from some legislators.

“Why do we need alcohol in the Capitol? To go with the guns?” Democratic Kansas Rep. Annie Tietze told the Topeka Capital-Journal, referencing a 2013 vote to allow concealed weapons in the Kansas Capitol.

Missouri elected officials and their employees are permitted to carry firearms inside the Capitol if they have a conceal-carry permit. The general public is prohibited from carrying a weapon into the Missouri statehouse.

In Iowa, alcohol and tobacco are not allowed on the Capitol grounds, even for special events. A fact sheet about holding weddings at the Iowa Capitol notes there are no exceptions to the alcohol ban, “even for a small amount of wine or champagne to toast the couple.”

In the private sector, smoking is almost universally banned in the office, as the dangers of second hand smoke have made the matter a public health issue.

As for workplace drinking, many businesses long ago determined alcohol had no place in the office, fearing it would lead to lost productivity and contribute to things like drunk driving and workplace harassment. In recent years, however, workplace happy hours have come back into vogue, seen by many as a perk that can help workers connect with each other and feel appreciated by their employers.

House Minority Leader Jake Hummel, a St. Louis Democrat, said drinking isn’t an issue in the Capitol.

“I haven’t seen a lot of legislators drunk on the (House) floor,” Hummel said, although he said that if drinking is banned in other state buildings “why should we be different? Maybe we should ban it if that’s the case.”

Each individual legislator decides whether to allow alcohol in their office, said Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, a Kansas City Democrat. That system seems to be working out just fine, he said.

“When I came down here in 2009, it was a lot worse,” he said. “They had fourth floor parties, with people walking around with booze. That’s not the case anymore. The media attention has put the kibosh on that sort of thing.”

Rep. Gina Mitten, a St. Louis Democrat, said alcohol “certainly contributes to the problems we’ve seen in the Capitol over the last year.” But banning it in the Capitol, she said, won’t solve anything.

“I just don’t know if it matters whether it’s inside the building or outside the building,” she said. “Geography isn’t the problem. It’s the alcohol. As a practical matter, the drinking will just shift down the street.”

Plus, with 163 legislative offices in the House and 34 in the Senate, Mitten said, “how would you enforce it?”

This debate is nothing new in Missouri.

Back in 1995, former Democratic state Rep. Jim Barnes of Raytown proposed a Capitol alcohol ban for the first time in three decades, noting at the time that “people object to seeing trash cans full of empty whiskey bottles and beer cartons.”

His bill didn’t get much traction.

Capitol trash cans aren’t overflowing with liquor bottles anymore, but many offices still come equipped with minibars stocked full of booze.

One thing hasn’t changed in 20 years: Solon doesn’t expect her bill to have much better luck than Barnes’ did.

“I enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, but there is a time and place for everything,” she said. “The Capitol is a public building and workplace, and the legislature needs to set a good example as a healthy and safe workplace.”

Jason Hancock: 573-634-3565, @J_Hancock