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Lager Calls For Ethics Reform As He Prepares To Leave Missouri Senate

Sen. Brad Lager
Jason Rosenbaum/St. Louis Public Radio

Northwest Missouri will have a new state senator next year, as Brad Lager prepares to leave office.

The Republican from Savannah can't run again because of term limits, but he says he's ready for the next chapter in his life -- which for now does not include politics. 

Lager sat down recently with St. Louis Public Radio's Marshall Griffin to talk about his time in office and about what he considers to be roadblocks toward making Missouri better. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

On Wednesday, we published an interview with state Sen. Jolie Justus, D-Kansas City, who is also leaving because of term limits.

St. Louis Public Radio: Why did you decide not to seek another public office?

Lager: It's been a great run. When I first came into the Missouri House, I was 26 and single; I'm now 38, (married), and we have a 2-year-old and a 6-year-old. Steph and I just have different priorities, and it is a different phase in my life and a different time.

I am incredibly grateful for having had the opportunity to serve, but I also believe our founding fathers truly envisioned a process by which you take time out of your private sector life to get involved in public service, but ultimately you go back to the private sector. And that's where I'm headed."

You still have four years of eligibility in the Missouri House. Any thoughts of returning and joining your former Senate colleague, Kevin Engler?

Lager: No, I am glad for my time in the House. But after being in the Senate, having the opportunity to work within a body of 34 versus a body of 163, I am better cut for the cloth of the Senate than the House. Really, for me, it's not even about the House and the Senate; it's about what's the next chapter in life. The  next chapter in life for me is spending more time at home with my kids.

Tell us a little bit about the early part of your legislative career. What goals and plans did you have?  Were they realized? Did you get close?

Lager: I came in with term limits. Of the 163 members in the state House the year I came in, 90 of us were new, so we were a voting majority. If we had stuck together, we could have dramatically changed it -- or dramatically messed it up.

I remember running those first couple of years and saying to myself, "I plan on going to Jefferson City, get this mess fixed and go home." Twelve years later, we're still down here fighting the mess. I never anticipated the bureaucrats and the way that they can slow down the process. My biggest fights in Jefferson City haven't been Republicans vs. Democrats; (they've) been elected officials vs. bureaucrats. (Bureaucrats) get ingrained in the way they do things. Even when you pass new laws and change the policy, getting them to necessarily change at times is very, very tough.

I had no idea the level of control that special interests have. The special interests, the people who walk the halls and throw money around, those people actually control the process way more than most elected officials (do). As I now take a step back, I look at some of the things we did, why we did them, and at the time you kind of scratch your head and you think "I wonder why we're doing this?" Hindsight being 20/20, you can now look at things and say, "Wow, we did it because a donor wanted this (or) needed this, or a donor gave X number of dollars and this happened," ranging from the village law (of 2007) to how we dealt with workers' comp when I was still in the House.

Overall, as I look at my time in public service, the last 12 years, the piece that I never anticipated was the level of influence that special interests have on the process.

Do you think that term limits have given the people that walk the halls the advantage, the edge, over those who are elected to office?

Lager: Because of 16-year term limits, assuming someone serves both (eight years) in the House and Senate, there are always going to be lobbyists here who have been here longer than the members. Clearly, institutional knowledge is lost with term limits. But I also believe that we gain new blood (and) new ideas with term limits.

The verdict is still out (on term limits). Do they work? Do they not work? Clearly, there were some unintended consequences -- this idea of a revolving door. The number of people that come in, they come here to change government. (Then) they slowly become more of a defender of government, (and) when they leave here, their goal is to figure out how to make money off of government, i.e., lobbying, i.e., an appointment by the governor.

I never anticipated that. There's never been a time that I wanted to come lobby here (or get) an appointment. Maybe I was just naive, a young kid from northwest Missouri.

You sponsored one of the ethics bills filed this year. What did y0u want to see happen?

Lager: You have to close the revolving door. Just like in Washington, D.C., lawmakers should have to sit out at least a couple of years before they go lobby.

There is a real problem in Jefferson City with the idea (of a) lavish lifestyle. I have a tough time understanding why someone thinks it's OK to go out and have dinner and it costs $5,000. If you're not going to spend your own money that way, you shouldn't spend someone else's money that way. The way that lobbyists are able to report to committees and caucuses and shield the members who are abusing that, I think that needs to be cleaned up.

I don't believe that an elected official should be a political consultant for another elected official. All that does is funnel money from lobbyists through one elected official into the personal pockets of another. I also believe that whenever you're out of office, you should get rid of any political funds that you have left over. I don't think we should have elected officials who leave office with millions of dollars in their political bank (accounts) that they then use to advance their lobbying opportunities or to travel on the earned interest from that money.

What about campaign contribution limits?

Lager: I do not believe in contribution limits. When we had limits, individuals, groups (and) organizations set up hundreds of different committees, and they would literally launder money through the committees in a way that, quote, 'made it legal'. There is no transparency, you don't know where the money is really coming from. I'd rather not have limits and have true transparency. With third-party committees, 529s, some of the new campaign finance rules and processes that are happening because of federal changes, you'll see more and more money come through third parties.

You made a run for lieutenant governor (in 2012) and fell just short of getting the Republican nomination (against Peter Kinder). Tell us what you learned from that whole experience. 

Lager: In 2008, I ran for state treasurer and lost by literally less than two points. When I ran for lieutenant governor in 2012, again, I lost by less than a couple of points. In both of those races, I can honestly sit here and tell you that I gave it everything I had. I'm a person who believes that things are meant to be. In both cases for whatever reasons, I wasn't meant to make it over the finish line, and I didn't. But that's OK. I've had 12 years in public service, and now it's time to go back to the private sector.

Would you ever reconsider getting back into politics and running for another statewide office or some other office?

Lager: Stephanie and I have talked about that. You never want to say "never" because there may be a time (to return to politics). But right now for us, for the next 15 to 20 years, my priorities are my kids while they're still at home, being there as they play T-ball and basketball and all the other wonderful things that kids do these days.

Two-part question:  What is your greatest accomplishment in office, whether it's in the House or Senate, and what was your biggest disappointment or unfulfilled challenge?

Lager: Twelve years ago, we were debating things like tapping the rainy day fund to pay the bills; we were debating almost a billion-dollar tax increase that (former Gov.) Bob Holden was putting forward; (and) we were debating how to take more from people to fund government. Twelve years later, we've cut taxes. Now the debate has shifted -- the true debate that we're having is about how to allow people to keep more of their own money because that's what's best ultimately for the future of our state.

In terms of greatest challenges, I've been very disappointed in our inability to bring real reform to our tort system. I've been very disappointed in our unwillingness to take on a judiciary that is just flat-out broken. The nonpartisan court plan, as they call it, which is really a hidden term for allowing lawyers to pick judges,  I don't believe it's serving the public well. Right now we have a judicial branch that is literally legislating from the bench, and if you look at half the stuff that we deal with in any given year, it's because of some court decision or some judge (who) has literally rewritten the way that we practice law. I don't believe the role of the judiciary is to create the law or to change the law, it's to determine whether it's constitutional. The judicial branch is interpreting the law and writing the laws, and for whatever reason, the legislative branch has not been willing to stop that.

We have one of the largest and, what I consider to be, fiscally dangerous tax credit programs in the country. The only state in the nation that spends more money on low-income housing (tax credits) than the state of Missouri is California, which has the fourth-largest economy in the world. When you have nearly 60 tax credit programs on the books, I don't know how you ever have a true fiscally responsible approach to budgeting when you have that much of your budget being spent outside of the appropriations process. Through my eight years here, the Senate has come a full 180 degrees, and the majority of the Senate now understands why we need tax credit reform, why we need to put reasonable caps on these programs.

Anything else you want to throw in?

Lager: I just want to (express my) gratitude and thanks to the people of the 12th Senate District (and) the people of the 4th legislative district when I was in the House. Having the opportunity to serve is an incredible blessing. I believe we have a responsibility to try to make tomorrow brighter because of our actions today. I hope that 20 years from now, when I look back on my time in public service, I can truly  point to things that say because we did this, we as a state and as a country are better off.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

Marshal was a political reporter for St. Louis Public Radio until 2018.