The Examiner: Lawmakers argue ‘meaningful’ ethics reform

Posted Feb. 5, 2016 at 5:15 AM

Legislative leaders say the Missouri General Assembly is acting quickly on tightening ethics rules, but other legislators argue the steps are not nearly enough.

“I think most of the bills we see are tinkering around the edges of ethics …” Sen. Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis, told publishers and editors from around the state Thursday during a panel discussion at the state Capitol.

The speaker of the House, however, told publishers and editors that action on “substantive, meaningful ethics reform” is underway.

“The public’s confidence in what we do is important to the legitimacy of what we do,” said the speaker, Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff.

It’s still early in the 2015 session, but at least two measures are moving ahead. One is requiring that legislators be out of office for at least a year before taking work as a lobbyist.

“That’s consistent with a majority of states. It is consistent with Congress,” said Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City and chair of the House Government Oversight and Accountability Committee.

Another would ban lobbyist gifts to legislators.

“I don’t think anyone’s vote has ever been bought with a meal,” Barnes said, but he added that the meals and other gifts over time break down a wall that should stand between lobbyists and legislators.

Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, described what he repeatedly called “the institutional corruption that’s built in” at the General Assembly and put the gift issue in starker terms.

“The whole idea of it is you give me something, I give you something,” he said. “It’s understood.”

The larger issue, some Democrats have argued, is the state’s lack of limits on campaign contributions. Voters imposed limits several years ago – $325 from any person for a primary, another $325 for the general election – but the Legislature repealed those limits, and contributions of six and seven figures have occurred in some state races.

“If you don’t think there’s some undue influence in that – I think there is,” Shupp said.

Legislative leaders have said they won’t consider campaign finance limits this year, and Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin and president pro tem of a Senate, underlined that point Thursday.

“You all want it,” he told publishers and editors. “We don’t. So it’s not going to happen.”

Gov. Jay Nixon also favors campaign finance limits, as well as banning the practice of legislators hiring each other as political consultants, which on Thursday he called “nothing more than laundering campaign funds.”

Schaaf criticized another practice – transfers of money from one campaign to another. The practice, he said, is for one donor to make a large contribution to a lawmaker, who when doles out large chunks of it to other candidates. It needs to stop, he said, “so you don’t have a purchasing of power by legislators – period.”

Barnes and Richardson said most people come into office for the right reasons and are good people, but Barnes and Schaaf broadly criticized the culture of the Capitol.

“Power is an ultimate test of character and personality,” Barnes said.The gifts and the currying of favor by lobbyists probably affect legislators at a subconscious level, Schaaf said, but it can make a difference if a bill is pushed back a week or two or sent to an unfriendly committee.

“We’re talking about shades here and little, tiny advantages,” he said.Still, the result is significant, he said.“… we’re giving special interests the ability to thwart good public policy because they have a lot of money,” he said.Schaaf offered a lesson he said he learned some time ago.“It’s all about economics, and you need to follow the money,” he said. “ … Nothing in the Legislature happens by accident.”

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