STL Today: Missouri state lawmakers to take another swing at ethics reform

December 26, 2015 11:00 pm • By Alex Stuckey

JEFFERSON CITY • Republicans and Democrats agree the scandals that led to two legislative resignations this year cast a shadow over state lawmakers and their work in Jefferson City.

They also agree ethics reform would help lift that stigma in 2016.

“I think the voters … are supportive of ethics reform,” said Rep. Tracy McCreery, D-St. Louis. “I just think there are regular occurrences of things that look improper, and it’s up to us in the Legislature to listen to what voters want us to do.”

In May, House Speaker John Diehl, a Republican, resigned because of sexually charged messages he exchanged with a 19-year-old intern from Missouri Southern State University. A few months later, Sen. Paul LeVota, a Democrat, resigned amid sexual harassment allegations from multiple former interns.

While the intern situation is not directly related to traditional ethics reform, McCreery said it “shined a light on the goings-on in Jefferson City.”

Missouri’s ethics laws fall short in three specific areas: limits on lobbyist gifts, laws governing when a legislator can become a lobbyist and campaign contribution limits.

Lawmakers have filed bills addressing these and related ethical concerns. Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, and House Speaker Todd Richardson, a Republican from Poplar Bluff who took the helm of the House after Diehl resigned, have said ethics reform will be a priority in 2016.

“Beginning the process of cleaning up the culture and the perception of politics in Jefferson City is my primary goal early in session,” Richardson said in an email. “I would look for limits on lobbyist gifts and a cooling off period for legislators that want to become lobbyists to be among the first bills out of the House when the legislature convenes in January.”

But any ethics measure is unlikely to have an easy road to passage given that negotiations have fizzled out on ethics bills in prior years, as recently as the 2015 session.

John Messmer, a political science professor at St. Louis Community College at Meramec who has called for ethics reform in the past, said he’s “cautiously optimistic” about reform in the 2016 session. He says the “high-profile intern scandals,” coupled with the 2016 elections, make him feel that way.

Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon also believes there might be momentum heading into the new legislative session.

“I think a lot of what happened during the end of last session galvanized people,” Nixon said in a recent interview.

Plus, the governor added, “Having the worst ethics laws in the nation is not a good place to be.”

Last year’s ethics reform bill would have placed a $25 cap on individual meals, tickets and trips legislators could legally receive from lobbyists. Missouri is one of only 10 states without a limit, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Several lawmakers have filed bills for the coming session to change that to an all-out ban.

The bill filed by Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, solely focuses on that idea. It’s important, he says, to eliminate voters’ “broad misconception” that all lawmakers do is “get down to Jefferson City and are pampered by lobbyists.”

From January to October, the most recent numbers available, lawmakers and their staffs and families accepted almost $580,000 worth of lobbyists’ gifts. That’s down from previous years over the same time period — nearly $800,000 in 2014 and about $900,000 in 2013.

The sheer amount of money coming in from lobbyists also makes Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake Saint Louis, think a ban on gifts is appropriate.

“All the gifts, food, and drink and travel — they all create an appearance of impropriety,” Onder said. “I can’t help but think it does influence legislative behavior.”

Onder’s bill goes a few steps further, forcing lawmakers to dissolve their campaign committees before becoming lobbyists. Lawmakers shouldn’t “move over to the lobbying world with large amounts of campaign dollars they can use to further their lobbying,” he said.

They also could no longer become lobbyists immediately after ending their tenure in the Legislature under Onder’s measure. Instead, Onder would have them wait two years.

“If a legislator leaves the General Assembly and immediately goes and lobbies, you know he’s spent a fair amount of time on the job looking for a job,” Onder said.

At least 33 states have enacted a “cooling-off period” before a former lawmaker can work at the Legislature as a lobbyist, according to the NCSL. Missouri has no revolving-door rules for legislators who become lobbyists, and many take advantage. The Post-Dispatch recently calculated the number of ex-lawmaker lobbyists at more than 50.

For example, former Republican Rep. Noel Torpey registered as a lobbyist for the Fair Energy Rate Action Fund shortly after resigning his seat in the Missouri House in 2014. Democratic Rep. Chris Kelly took a gig lobbying for Ameren Missouri this year after retiring from the Legislature.

At least six other lawmakers, along with Onder, are on board with some kind of delay.

Rep. Sheila Solon, R-Blue Springs, agrees that a two-year period would be appropriate, but others have suggested different time frames. McCreery filed legislation that would force lawmakers to wait three years after their term expires to become a lobbyist, while Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, would have elected officials wait one full session.

Schupp said she picked the one-session period because it “creates that separation without standing in the way of somebody getting a job.”

Additionally, Schupp said it would prevent a lawmaker from “one day sitting next to a person who is your colleague and the next day lobbying that same colleague.”

A revolving-door ban has the backing of Nixon.

“People leaving this place and going straight into lobbying … is not good policy,” Nixon said.

Though the NCSL reports at least 44 states impose some type of limit on campaign contributions, that change does not appear popular among lawmakers at this juncture.

But Sens. Schupp and Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, have filed measures addressing campaign contribution limits.

Under Holsman’s measure, voters would decide whether to adopt a $2,500 limit for those running for representative, a $5,000 limit for those running for senator and a $10,000 limit for those running for statewide office. Voters also would decide on a gift ban and a one-year cooling off period.

With contribution limits, “candidates seek support from a broader base of constituents rather than a handful of wealthy donors,” Holsman said.

Schupp’s measure would set lower limits — $750 for a House of Representatives campaign, $1,500 for a Senate campaign and $5,000 for a statewide office — but it would not depend on voter approval.

“I think that people feel like elections are for sale to the highest contributor and that Missouri voices don’t matter if they don’t have a lot of money to contribute,” Schupp said.

Missouri repealed its campaign contribution limits in 2008. Many Democrats have said any ethics reform bill must include contribution limits.

Some Republicans are completely against limits, while others say that discussion should be separate from other ethics reform measures.

Before the limits were repealed, Solon said it was easy for people to skirt the law, making it difficult to see where a candidate was getting his or her money.

“Right now, a $1 million check can be written to a candidate, but on the flip side you can look at the reports online,” Solon said. “The argument made is that at least we have transparency.”

While Solon’s measure would ban gifts and create a “cooling-off period,” it also would address what she calls “the root of the problem” in Jefferson City: the culture of entitlement.

That culture includes free meals and event and sporting tickets, but she said it also involves lawmakers drinking and smoking in the Capitol.

“The Capitol is a public building and needs to be treated with respect and dignity,” Solon said. “The public can’t smoke or drink on the premises, and lawmakers shouldn’t be able to do so.”

Her bill would prevent lawmakers from drinking or smoking in the Capitol beginning Jan. 1, 2017. This would not apply to special events agreed to by the governor, House speaker and Senate president pro tem.

The 2016 legislative session begins Jan. 6.

Kurt Erickson of the Post-Dispatch contributed to this report.

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