The sky is falling! The sky is falling!
That’s the sense you get from longtime Jefferson City denizens these days. Lawmakers no longer can enjoy those fancy dinners with lobbyists picking up the bill. The days of pig roasts in the hallways of the state Capitol are gone. Free tickets to the big concert this weekend? That’s history, too.
There’s weeping in Missouri’s capital city all because of the new $5 limit on lawmaker gifts now in place courtesy of that Clean Missouri ethics initiative that voters approved in November.
“It will negatively affect the economy of this town,” Ron Agee, owner of Madison’s Cafe, an Italian restaurant not far from the statehouse, told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
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Apparently Agee didn’t have much to say about whether the new $5 gift limit will result in better laws. Special interests deemed it worthwhile last year to ply the legislature with more than $1 million in food, drink and tickets to bend the laws their way.
No question the gift limit will dramatically impact the lives of lawmakers. In the good ol’ days, legislators could eat breakfast, lunch and dinner courtesy of lobbyists and still pocket their daily per diem, now totaling $115 a day.
What staggers the mind is just how long the gravy train lasted. One of my first memories of the statehouse when I arrived in 1988 was watching big men delivering heavy boxes of liquor and beer to lawmakers, courtesy of lobbyists. Those deliverymen would walk right by groups of school kids learning how laws get passed.
At least those kids got an unfiltered view.
The gift culture endured for decades despite occasional media kerfuffles. Back in the ‘80s came the story of the “lobster tails,” a group of lawmakers who ordered the most expensive stuff on the menu to stick lobbyists with outrageous tabs.
More recently, in 2013, reporters wrote about the legendary $5,000 dinner for the House Utilities Committee at CC’s City Broiler in Columbia, one of Missouri’s best steakhouses. Reportedly, Noranda, the aluminum smelter company that’s the state’s biggest user of electricity, picked up the tab.
Wish I’d been there.
In 2015, TV station KRCG caught the House Telecommunications Committee meeting not in a Capitol hearing room, but at the Jefferson City Country Club for one of the well-known “steakhouse hearings.” Paying the bill that day was the Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association, the very industry the committee regulated.
House Speaker John Diehl defended the meal as “normal practice.” A reporter asked committee chairman Bart Korman if there was anything improper about the dinner.
“I don’t know,” he said.
It went on for so many years — and was so astonishingly brazen — that the gift culture became baked into the Capitol’s culture. Many lawmakers hardly recognized it as a problem. Nearly every year, lawmakers considered a gift ban, then walked away from it.
It took citizens to step in and force change.
“It’s like night and day,” Rep. Brandon Ellington, a Kansas City Democrat, said of the new rule. “It’s like they turned off the switch.”
Jefferson City will adapt. Already one downtown establishment is offering the “Clean Missouri Cocktail” — a little rum and lime juice “topped with nothing, no garnish.”
The usual price: $8. But that tops the $5 limit. So the price was cut to $4.63.