The Missouri Influencer Series

Buying influence: Do dark money, lobbyist gifts affect Missouri legislators’ policy?

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Missouri Influencer Series

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Can a pair of baseball tickets, an expensive dinner or tickets to a social function buy a legislator’s vote? What about a campaign donation?

Whether lobbyists should be able to provide Missouri lawmakers with extravagant gifts and meals is a subject of hot debate in Jefferson City — even among those who don’t think a legislator would realistically change their vote in exchange for a steak.

“We shouldn’t have lobbyist gifts,” said former state Sen. John Lamping, a Republican.

Those gifts, he said, while small compared to campaign contributions that “special interests” might hand out to legislators, can influence legislators’ thinking.

“If somebody sits across the table from you and you look them in the eye and you explain to them your personal problem and how it affects you and they’re eating your free food and drinking your free wine and you’re paying for it, they are much more likely psychologically to put themselves into your shoes, to feel what you’re feeling — to feel your pain, so to speak — and to understand why it is that you need a certain thing,” said Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph.

Schaaf and Lamping are part of a cadre that would like to see the stream of gifts to legislators shut off. They’re not alone. Asked what they wanted to know about political corruption and transparency in Missouri, Star readers wanted to know whether gifts and campaign contributions — including those made by dark-money organizations — could influence legislators to the detriment of the state.

Many of the Missouri Influencers, The Star’s panel of dozens of leaders from across Missouri, expressed concern about the potential for lobbyist gifts to influence legislators, but some argued they weren’t significant enough to affect policy solutions. For most, the issue paled in comparison to the influence of money in campaigns, especially untraceable “dark money.”

“I am confident that those giving gifts and making political donations are convinced that such things influence policy,” said Patrick Tuohey, director of municipal policy for the Show-Me Institute. “Otherwise, why bother? I don’t know if it is necessarily detrimental, but it should be transparent.”

This year, lobbyists have spent nearly $120,000 on meals and tickets to baseball games, charity events and other social engagements for individual Missouri legislators and their staffs and families, and more than $146,000 on events and meals for the whole group. That total has been on decline for years.

“I do not think lobbyist gifts sway lawmakers,” said James Harris, a political strategist and like Tuohey one of the Influencers. “Often, trade associations have constituents in Jefferson City and want to sit down with lawmakers for a meal, and I think this is understandable. I have never seen a lawmaker sell out over a hamburger.”

From now until Election Day, The Star will be asking its readers to submit questions on a variety of political topics for the Missouri Influencers Series. The goal of the series is to create a conversation between readers and influential Missourians about the biggest policy issues facing the state. Readers can ask questions and vote on topics they want the Influencers to address.

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Lobbyist gifts

This year, Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, set out to ban lobbyist gifts in exchange for a tweak to the state law that limits lawmakers to eight years of service in each chamber of the Missouri General Assembly.

Holsman doesn’t take lobbyist gifts. He and several other Missouri lawmakers have zeroes next to their names on the Missouri Ethics Commission’s list of lobbyist gift totals for legislators. While Holsman said he doesn’t think most legislators would flip their votes in exchange for a free dinner, he said 97 percent of his constituents opposed legislators accepting lobbyist gifts.

“I do think that’s more perception than it is reality,” Holsman said. “... In 12 years of serving in the legislature, I’ve never seen a lobbyist gift influence a legislator’s action.”

Rep. Kurt Bahr, R-St. Charles County, doesn’t support banning lobbyist gifts, and said dinners have historically served as a means of “purchasing time” with legislators whose schedules are packed when they’re in Jefferson City for the legislative session.

“For me, if I had to pay my own way to meet with a lobbyist from a group that represents a group I don’t agree with, typically, I simply wouldn’t meet with them and I wouldn’t hear from their side,” Bahr said, adding that he recognized that might be “churlish,” but it’s “human nature.”

Considering the fact that lawmakers are term-limited, Bahr said, meetings with lobbyists can be beneficial for lawmakers who need to learn more about various policy proposals. He said he rejects “the notion that a lobbyist gift — a lunch or a dinner — is sufficient to buy off a legislator” unless the legislator has poor moral character anyway.

Activists hoping to pass a sweeping ethics reform and redistricting ballot initiative would also like to halt the practice. Clean Missouri, which will be on the November ballot, would lower campaign contribution limits, eliminate most lobbyist gifts, impose a waiting period for former legislators to become lobbyists, open records and reform Missouri’s redistricting process. Critics raise issue with the redistricting proposal they say would give Democrats an advantage.

Advocates for Clean Missouri argue that gifts allow lobbyists undue influence.

Benjamin Singer, communications director for the campaign, said lobbyists wouldn’t spend money on lawmakers “if there weren’t a return on that investment.”

“The cup-of-coffee rule makes it so that lobbyists can’t afford to take legislators out for more lavish gifts and things than the constituents back at home can afford,” Singer said.

Ken Novak, an Influencer and professor of criminal justice and criminology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, said he had no idea whether dark money and lobbyist gifts had a detrimental effect on the state.

“But that’s the point, isn’t it?” Novak said. “Full transparency is critical in order to promote legitimacy within public service. We don’t know whether, or to what degree, gifts or political donations impact decision making. But since it is very reasonable to believe they could, maximum transparency is necessary.”

Influencer and Kansas City Council member Alissia Canady suggested an ethics review to study the correlation between political donations and votes on critical issues.

“Also, most importantly, all political donors should be disclosed as well as any business interest they may have, including money received from PACs,” Canady said.

Jason Grill, a media, public affairs and crisis communications consultant and Influencer, said he doesn’t believe lobbyist gifts influence policy decisions, but there are possibly “a few bad apples in every group.”

“More transparency in political donations is a good thing and dark-money contributions have to be brought to light in order to continue to promote ethical behavior in politics,” Grill said.

Influencer Scott Charton agreed.

“Sunshine is the best disinfectant — transparency about sources of political funding can help address growing distrust and cynicism about our political system,” said Charton, CEO of Charton Communications.

Campaign donations and dark money

More concerning than the idea of lobbyists wooing lawmakers with booze, Holsman said, is the influence of campaign donations.

“Most legislators are professional people and understand that just because somebody picks up a check at dinner or you go to a ballgame — it’s not a determining factor in why or why not you would vote yes or no on an issue, but a $10,000 check certainly could be,” Holsman said.

Of particular concern, Holsman said, is money that can’t be traced to its original source, something some lawmakers and onlookers think is a growing problem in Missouri politics.

Former Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, an Influencer, said dark money was the “largest risk to our democracy.”

Influencer Brenda Bethman, director of the UMKC Women’s Center, suggested public financing of campaigns so no private donations are allowed.

“Dark money,” defined as campaign contributions routed through nonprofits or companies to hide where the money originated, isn’t a new phenomenon in Missouri.

In 2012, then-Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder saw an onslaught of attack ads targeting him paid for by a political action committee. The sole donor to that committee was a nonprofit. That same year, the payday loan industry funneled millions through a nonprofit into a PAC to successfully fend off efforts to put tougher regulations on these types of loans on the ballot.

But it wasn’t until the rise of former Gov. Eric Greitens that dark money came to dominate Missouri politics.

While Greitens was publicly decrying anonymous campaign cash, his staff was laying the groundwork for what would become $6 million in dark-money support for his 2016 gubernatorial campaign.

After taking office in 2017, his staff set up A New Missouri Inc., a nonprofit established solely to support Greitens and his agenda.

A bipartisan group of senators essentially held the Missouri Senate hostage in May 2017, demanding that GOP leaders allow a vote on legislation aimed at forcing political nonprofits like A New Missouri to disclose their donors. The effort was derailed when a group of Republican senators staged a filibuster, calling the disclosure requirements an infringement on free speech and personal privacy that could subject donors to retaliation.

Bahr rejected the term “dark money” and said the idea of requiring transparency in political donations forced individuals to be transparent to the government when it’s the government he believes should be transparent to individuals. He said some individuals may not want to disclose their donations if they give to a group their peers might not approve of.

“I think that allowing people the freedom ... to not disclose who they donate money to is an anti-bullying measure within our public discourse of free speech,” Bahr said.

A Missouri House panel concluded that A New Missouri was “a criminal enterprise” designed to illegally skirt campaign finance laws and conceal the identities of major donors. Greitens ultimately resigned June 1, but a Republican lawmaker still filed a complaint against A New Missouri and Greitens’ campaign with the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Dark-money spending has now managed to creep up and down the ballot.

A special election last year for a Jackson County-based state Senate seat saw hundreds of thousands of dollars in anonymous money spent to help Republican Mike Cierpiot win. And three state Senate races earlier this month saw GOP candidates win primaries with the help of largely anonymous cash routed through a political action committee called Missouri Senate Conservatives Fund.

Influencer Crosby Kemper III, director of the Kansas City Public Library and co-founder of the Show-Me Institute, said dark money and lobbyist gifts have a detrimental effect on policy.

“Everyone believes the money in the system supports things they disagree with except when it’s spent on things they agree with,” Kemper said. “I’m in favor of more transparency and also more media focus on disclosing local interests at work.”

Gregg Keller, an Influencer and principal of Atlas Strategy Group, said “the left” coined the phrase “dark money” to outlaw ordinary citizens from taking part in public policy.

“They’d prefer the old way, where only liberal editorial pages and labor unions could participate in such ways,” Keller said. “We need more citizen participation in our policy discussions, not less.”

Influencer Ryan Silvey, a Missouri Public Service commissioner and former Republican state senator, said dark money is the greatest threat to the political system.

“Donors being able to influence elections without transparency for the people to hold them — or the candidates they support — accountable is not healthy at all,” Silvey said. “For instance, if the captains of industry want to push policy that is harmful to their employees or customers, the public should know so they can pull the free market levers available to them in response.

“You cannot have balance without transparency.”

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Earlier this summer, Missouri voters dealt a decisive victory to labor unions, rejecting the General Assembly’s “right to work” law. At that same time, Missouri lawmakers passed bills adding restrictions to public-sector unions and rolling back the prevailing wage law, which requires that workers on public projects be paid at a minimum the prevailing wage in the area. What questions do you have about organized labor and workers in Missouri? Tell us at