The Missouri House was in the midst of a rare debate on ethics reform recently when Brandon Ellington, a Kansas City Democrat, took to the floor with an on-point question.
“Which is more dangerous, going out for a $100 dinner or taking $10,000 in campaign contributions?” he asked.
The issue at hand was an amendment to place a $25 limit on lobbyists’ gifts to lawmakers.
And the answer to Ellington’s query is, well, complicated.
The biggest scandal in Missouri government is the audacious campaign donations that wealthy individuals and interest groups heap on officeholders and potential candidates.
Outsized political contributions cause political leaders to serve special interests at the expense of ordinary citizens. That won’t change until donations are limited, which the Republican-controlled General Assembly is hardly poised to do.
But unlimited largesse from lobbyists is also a problem. The appearance of lawmakers being lavishly wined, dined and otherwise feted by people with a stake in legislation is unseemly, but painfully accurate.
A Missouri legislative seat was designed to be part-time public service; for some it is. A couple of dozen lawmakers accepted no lobbyists’ gifts in 2014. Others recorded minimal amounts.
But for too many legislators, elected office has evolved into the foundation of a long career on the public payroll. A seat in the House could lead to a promotion to the Senate, which could result in a run for a statewide office or a prized seat on a salaried commission and a lucrative public pension.
Lawmakers abandon other jobs to pursue their political careers, and receive an annual salary of about $36,000 and an allowance of $104 a day when the legislature is in session. Obviously, the prospect of a lobbyist picking up a dinner tab is appealing. And lobbyist’ gifts, such as tickets to concerts and sporting events, provide an opportunity for legislators to extend the perks of office to family, friends and constituents.
The Kansas City delegation features prominently on the list of big takers.
Kansas City Rep. John Rizzo, a Democrat, received $7,315 worth of meals and gifts from lobbyists in 2014, the most of any House member. Ellington got gifts worth $4,502, the third highest amount in the House.
Noel Torpey, a Republican from Independence, took $3,222 from lobbyists before resigning his seat to become a lobbyist. And Democrat Tom McDonald of Raytown, not known as an influential legislator, was still feted to the tune of $3,676.
In the Senate, Democrat Paul LeVota of Independence was the second highest recipient, with $6,368 worth of meals and gifts. Democrat Kiki Curls of Kansas City was in third place, with $5,014. Republican Ryan Silvey, of Kansas City, North, took $4,844 worth of meals and gifts.
LeVota said many lobbyist gifts on his report were to games at the Truman Sports Complex, which is in his district. The success of the Royals in the playoffs gave him an unusually high total for 2014, he said. Yet LeVota said he would probably vote for limits on lobbyist gifts.
“There is such a lack of trust in the elected officials in Jefferson City, anything is good,” he said.
Rizzo, who voted for the $25 limit, said his high total reflected his insistence on recording all lobbyists’ gifts to himself as an individual, rather than allowing them to be attributed as gifts to a committee, a tactic he said was common among the Republican majority. “I report everything,” he said. “They find loopholes.”
There is something to that complaint. According to an analysis by St. Louis Public Radio, three-quarters of the gifts in the first six months of 2014 were made to groups, not individuals.
Missouri Ethics Commission records show a long list of committees and caucuses that benefited from lobbyists. A whopping $302,375 was listed as gifts to the “entire General Assembly.” This enables lobbyists to invite everyone to an event, and avoid reporting who showed up.
The House and Senate have now each passed bills that address ethics reform in limited fashion. The House bill caps lobbying gifts and sensibly requires that lawmakers sit out a year before becoming lobbyists, a restriction that would take place immediately. But it doesn’t address the committee loophole.
The Senate’s version requires lobbyists to name individual recipients of their gifts, rather than groups. But it doesn’t cap gifts, and it exempts current lawmakers from a waiting period before becoming lobbyists.
The issue of ethics reform is so contentious that lawmakers are predicting both chambers will do just enough to claim credit for trying, but another session will end without anything substantial getting done.
With that in mind, here’s our answer to Ellington’s question:
Large campaign contributions are toxic to Missouri, and the time is right for a citizen’s ballot initiative to limit them. Unlimited gifts from lobbyists make the lawmaking process look tawdry and disreputable. Legislators should pass a bill this year capping or eliminating gifts and closing off obvious loopholes.