Editorial: Missouri lawmakers shouldn’t head home until they ban gifts from lobbyists

The need for a gift ban and other ethics reforms remains unfinished business in the Statehouse as lawmakers race toward a May adjournment.
The need for a gift ban and other ethics reforms remains unfinished business in the Statehouse as lawmakers race toward a May adjournment.

Does your Missouri state lawmaker accept gifts from lobbyists?

A helpful database can answer that question.

The website, built by our friends at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, provides a fascinating peek inside the cloistered world of Jefferson City politics, and it reaffirms our view that the General Assembly is in desperate need of a gift ban.

As things stand today, the House once again has taken the lead on vital ethics reform and has passed a measure that would bar lawmakers from accepting all those sports and concert tickets, out-of-town trips and fancy dinners. And once again, the Senate is standing resolutely by its well-earned reputation for stubbornness and a disregard for the will of Missouri voters. It’s refusing to do much of anything. With adjournment looming next month, the right honorables need to get cracking.

This fight has gone on way too long. It’s clear that key Republicans aim to just wait this thing out and hope that pesky editorial writers grow weary of the issue.

But we’re not going anywhere because a ban is so desperately needed. To recap: Last year, lobbyists doled out almost $600,000 in gifts to state politicians, with most of that going to members of the General Assembly. That generosity came despite a recent Statehouse scandal that drove a House speaker from office.

Now, lawmakers will continue to insist that no one can buy their vote for a $50 dinner. But the obvious rejoinder is to ask why so many lobbyists continue to dole out thousands of dollars each year in perks. They do it because they believe they gain a healthy return on their investment when it comes to the issues they’re pushing. Repeat after us: “Gifts … sway … thinking.” That’s why it’s done. It gives well-heeled lobbyists an enormous advantage over average citizens who may not have the means to wine and dine their way through the legislative process.

It’s no more complicated than that.

Lawmakers will claim there’s a legitimate philosophical difference at play this year between the House and Senate. The House wants an outright ban on all gifts. The Senate is saying it wants to place a cap on gift-giving, say $10 a pop. This is a minor disagreement that can easily be overcome if there’s real will to get this done. Lots of other states already have bans. They figured it out.

As we’ve noted several times in this space, freshman Gov. Eric Greitens has already managed to severely undermine one of his central campaign pledges to clean up Jefferson City. He has done so by refusing to disclose the source of a record-setting “dark money” campaign contribution last year. He has refused to disclose who paid what for his inauguration celebration and who’s paying for his air travel as governor.

Such a lack of transparency only works against his stated goal of cleaning up state government. Leading lawmakers have acknowledged as much.

Other ethics reforms also are needed, including putting a halt to the revolving door of lawmakers becoming lobbyists. Legislators also might take a crack at banning secretive dark-money donations, though that could rub up against First Amendment guarantees.

Missourians voted overwhelmingly in November to cap campaign donations in a move that can easily be interpreted as voter interest in cleaner government. You can bet that a statewide vote on banning lobbyist gifts would pass just as easily. Lawmakers need to get this done.