Ethics reform running into resistance in the Missouri Senate

Rep. Justin Alferman, a Republican from Gasconade County, sponsored legislation that would ban lobbyist gifts to legislators.
Rep. Justin Alferman, a Republican from Gasconade County, sponsored legislation that would ban lobbyist gifts to legislators.

Debate hadn’t even begun yet on his bill banning lobbyist gifts, yet Rep. Justin Alferman was already feeling less than hopeful.

Last month the Missouri Senate watered down a House bill aimed at preventing legislators from leaving office one day and returning to the Capitol as a professional lobbyist the next. Instead of having to wait a year, the bill now only requires lawmakers finish their term in office before lobbying.

Last week, their attention turned to lobbyist gifts, and Alferman’s pessimism turned out to be justified.

After three hours of debate, the Senate set the bill aside as lawmakers continued to disagree on how lobbyist freebies could be curtailed — or whether they needed to be at all.

“I’ve yet to hear a single compelling reason for why legislators need to be able to accept lobbyist gifts in order to perform their duties,” said Alferman, a Hermann Republican.

Missouri is the only state in the nation with the trio of no caps on campaign contributions, no limits on lobbyist gifts to elected officials and no waiting period before a legislator can become a lobbyist.

As a result, six-figure campaign donations have become a normal part of Missouri politics; lawmakers collectively accept $900,000 a year in lobbyist-provided meals, booze, trips and event tickets; and lobbyists’ ranks have swelled with former legislators and staff cashing in on their expertise and connections.

After a year marked by scandal — including the resignations of two lawmakers over inappropriate conduct with interns — the General Assembly entered 2016 with legislative leaders promising to pass ethics reform.

And true to their word, bipartisan majorities in the Missouri House quickly approved seven ethics bills and sent them to the Senate within the first month of the legislative session.

In the Senate, the reception hasn’t been quite as warm.

“What we’re engaged in here is hocus-pocus,” said Sen. Bob Dixon, a Springfield Republican. “What we’re talking about doing is putting something on paper, and it is not going to change a single thing.”

Dixon argued that passing bills to outlaw certain activities won’t stop people from engaging in unethical behavior.

“I don’t want to go home to my constituents and give them false hope that we passed ethics reform and it’s all going to be better now,” Dixon said.

Some senators worried a gift ban would mean they’d no longer be able to approach lobbyists for tickets or other items on behalf of charities or poor constituents. Sen. Brian Munzlinger, a Republican from Lewis County, said lobbyists often provide meals for his constituents when they visit the Capitol, a practice he believes is worthwhile.

Those pushing ethics reform proposals are just doing so to “curry favor with the media,” said Sen. Dave Schatz, a Franklin County Republican.

Schatz called the push for a waiting period before lawmakers can become lobbyists a “solution in search of a problem,” dismissing critics who say current law fuels a perception that lawmakers are casting votes in the hope that it will win them a job when they leave office.

He worried that if a lobbyist gift ban were put in place he could accidentally violate it if he noticed a box of leftover pizza in someone’s office and took a slice.

“Would I know if there was a box of pizza, and I came by your office, that a lobbyist paid for that pizza?” Schatz said. “I walked by and I picked up a piece and ate it, and all of a sudden now I’m guilty of violating the thing that we’ve banned everybody from partaking in.”

Sen. Jamilah Nasheed, a St. Louis Democrat, questioned whether Schatz’s concerns about the bill were actually much more basic.

“I think you just want to keep getting gifts,” she told Schatz during debate.

Before the bill was set aside, Republican Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph attached amendments he said were designed to close “huge loopholes.” The first banned gifts from lobbyists to groups, such as a meal provided to the entire General Assembly. The second capped the value of awards and plaques at $50.

“If we are not influenced by these gifts, then why do lobbyists give them?” Schaaf asked, later adding: “Taxpayers already foot the bill for $103 per day per diem for each legislator to pay for food and lodging. If that’s not enough, then it would be better to increase the amount of the per diem than to let lobbyists fill in the gap.”

The Senate did unanimously approve a bill last week that would prohibit legislators from serving as paid political consultants while in office. The bill does not, however, pertain to legislative staff, many of whom earn thousands of dollars moonlighting as consultants for candidates and interest groups.

That bill, along with the cooling-off period bill, now goes to a conference committee to work out differences between the House and Senate.

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, remains convinced that meaningful ethics reform will get to the governor’s desk this year. In fact, he hopes some of the issues will be resolved before the legislative spring break later this month, including the lobbyist gift ban bill.

He also said that he hopes “the Senate moves to a stronger position” on ethics reform, noting that it has supported more strict regulations in the past.

Alferman, the sponsor of the lobbyist gift ban bill, said the aim of ethics reform is to improve the culture of the Missouri Capitol and “try to restore the confidence of the electorate in their legislature.”

“The behavior in the (Capitol) building has to be reined in,” he said. “To hide behind this idea that we shouldn’t do any ethics reform because some people might still do bad things is ridiculous. It’s like saying we shouldn’t have a speed limit because some people will still speed.”