Give the Missouri Senate some credit: The right honorables are finally expressing interest in limiting lobbyist gifts.
But while the progress is noteworthy, it isn’t enough. Right now is the time to strike and take an even bigger step toward wiping out lobbyist gifts once and for all. For the third year in a row, the Missouri House has done exactly that, acting with breathtaking speed for a legislative body with 163 members.
The House vote this year was 134-12 in favor of reform.
The man behind the House legislation, state Rep. Justin Alferman, a Hermann Republican, has called his push for a ban on most lobbyist gifts a dramatic switch in the way business is conducted in Jefferson City. He’s said something else that’s important here: Missourians want change, and they’re calling for it loudly.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Put the idea to a public vote, and it would pass with 80 percent backing. After all, the very idea of lobbyists currying favor with public servants via swanky dinners, free booze and concert tickets is loathsome. Average citizens don’t do that.
Don’t underestimate what a big deal this is. In the first six months of 2017, lawmakers and their staffs received $347,368 in gifts, The Star reported last year. That averaged out to $1,760 per lawmaker.
Now, though, comes the tough part, and that’s the Missouri Senate’s consideration. The upper chamber has killed gift crackdowns in recent sessions. This year, the Senate is showing some willingness to at least consider something, and that’s the progress mentioned above.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe is sponsoring his chamber’s version of the bill. Kehoe has softened the blow for his members by proposing a limit of no more than $40 worth of gifts a day. That remains a nice bonus for members on top of their annual salary and per diem pay of $113 a day.
The Jefferson City Republican has also proposed that lawmakers reimburse lobbyists for any gift valued at more than $40. And he’s said legislators can’t accept tickets to an event unless the lobbyist is present.
Again, this is far from perfect but better than the current system of no limit at all. Still, it wouldn’t combat the debilitating perception for the ethics-challenged General Assembly that its members are entitled to special favors just because they’re lawmakers. That’s precisely the wrong message.
If both chambers agree that it’s time to crack down on gifts, then why not go all the way? There’s beauty is simplicity when it comes to ethics rules, but Missouri continues to favor exceptions. Even the House version would permit lobbyists to host catered events with free food if all members of the legislature are invited.
Critics call that a significant loophole.
The Senate may be showing more interest in limiting gifts because of outside pressure. An initiative petition effort underway known as Clean Missouri would ban any gift valued at more than $5, and it would do other things, too, such as require lawmakers to wait at least two years before becoming lobbyists.
Missouri voters have demonstrated unbridled eagerness when it comes to passing tough ethics laws. They’re way ahead of lawmakers on this issue. The General Assembly should try to catch up this session.