Ending the free flow of lobbyist gifts to Missouri lawmakers sat atop the legislative agenda heading into the 2016 session. And for a while, it looked destined for success.
The Missouri House passed a gift ban just three weeks into the 2016 session, sending it to the Senate with four months to hammer out the details.
In the end, many think it never really stood a chance. The bill ultimately died on the Senate floor, watered down and mired in amendments.
Now the Senate is facing fresh scrutiny, thanks to a report by Missouri Auditor Nicole Galloway that criticized a bank account operated by the Senate outside the state treasury for the purpose of soliciting contributions from lobbyists to pay for meals for senators and staff.
The bank account is unconstitutional, Galloway’s office said, and it “gives the appearance of, and may result in, a conflict of interest.”
That critique is almost identical to a similar audit prepared in 2013 by then-Auditor Tom Schweich, a Republican.
Senate leaders responded by saying they had no choice but to keep the bank account open. How else, they argued, will they pay for meals when the Senate works late?
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, issued a statement focusing on the positive aspects of the audit and noting that “we will continue to seek any recommendations that can help us operate more efficiently and be worthy of the trust Missourians have placed on us.”
But to many observers — both Republicans and Democrats — the bank account is just part of a bigger issue within the Missouri General Assembly.
“What’s sad is it’s not even shocking,” said Laura Swinford, executive director of the liberal advocacy group Progress Missouri. “It’s symptomatic of what’s going on in Jefferson City right now. We have a culture in Jefferson City where our legislature feels entitled to these things.”
Lawmakers and their staff collectively accept around $900,000 a year in lobbyist-provided meals, booze, trips and event tickets, although the total has dipped in recent years.
Ryan Johnson, president of the conservative nonprofit Missouri Alliance for Freedom, downplayed the significance of the lobbyist-funded bank account. But he said lawmakers should have long ago put an end to the free flow of lobbyist gifts.
“Late night pizza for underpaid, overworked Senate staff who often work past midnight does not buy their bosses’ votes,” Johnson said. “That said, ending the practice of lobbyist gifts should have happened this year and it remains one of (Missouri Alliance for Freedom’s) top priorities for next session.”
Johnson said the fact that a lobbyist gift ban was blocked in the Senate demonstrates some lawmakers “picked the perks of office instead of their constituents’ interests.”
“If they do not change their minds, then conservatives and their constituents should start looking for alternatives,” he said. “We change culture by changing the people who are there. Elections will give us that opportunity. Ultimately, real ethics reform happens when we elect ethical people.”
Galloway’s audit found that contributions to an outside bank account from lobbyists totaled $6,500 from 2013 to 2015. Schweich’s previous audit found the Senate spent $8,689 in lobbyist-raised funds in 2011 for a Senate retirement dinner and retirement gifts.
State legislators receive $104 each day the legislature is in session for miscellaneous costs such as food and lodging.
According to a review by The Star of documents filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission, an additional $6,000 was deposited in the account during the 2016 legislative session.
The biggest contributor was the Missouri Association of Realtors, which donated $4,000 to the fund.
Andy Blunt, a registered lobbyist and son of U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, donated $1,500 to the fund on behalf of the Missouri Automobile Dealers Association and the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association.
The Missouri Energy Development Association chipped in $500.
“This is exactly the type of cronyism and corruption that Eric will eliminate as governor,” said Austin Chambers, campaign manager for Eric Greitens, the Republican nominee for governor.
Greitens, a former Navy SEAL who has never run for political office before, has focused his campaign on ending a “culture of political corruption in Jefferson City.” That includes a total ban on lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and their staff.
Chambers said the Democratic nominee, Chris Koster, has ignored the problem and “has contributed to it for decades.”
Koster’s spokesman, David Turner, said the Democratic nominee has called for “significant reforms since 2014, such as lowering the 48-hour reporting requirement, banning lobbyist gifts, and new disclosures for 501(c)(4) organizations. In his campaign, he’s implemented the strictest conflict-of-interest policy in the country.”
He’s hopeful, Turner said, the legislature will take action when the new session begins in January.
At the close of the 2016 session, House Speaker Todd Richardson vowed that a lobbyist gift ban would be the first bill introduced in 2017. State Rep. Justin Alferman, a Gasconade County Republican who sponsored the 2016 bill, said legislators “shouldn’t be receiving gifts in the first place.”
“So we’re trying to make sure that we alleviate some of the undue influence that lobbyists have on legislators in Jefferson City,” he said.
Opponents of a gift ban said it would simply push the practice underground, making it impossible to track who is getting what from whom. Others said it wouldn’t represent real reform as long as elected officials can still accept unlimited campaign contributions.
Those arguments, Swinford said, just don’t hold water.
“Every time ethics reform comes up, critics say, ‘Oh, they’ll just figure out another way to do it,’ ” she said. “Well, make them figure out a way. Try to put some reforms in place, and if folks figure out a way around them, figure out a way to reform the law again.”
“They call it a food desert now, because there used to be food everyplace,” Engler said. “That’s not the way it is now.”