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Ethics Reforms Moving Forward In Missouri Legislature

Missouri Capitol
File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Capitol

After a few years of going nowhere, ethics reform may finally be gaining traction within the Republican-dominated Missouri legislature.

Senate endorses ethics bill

On Wednesday, the Missouri Senate gave first-round approval to Senate Bill 11, sponsored by Majority Floor Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin.  It touches on several issues, which include:

  • Barring incumbent state lawmakers, along with candidates for the House and Senate, from working as paid political consultants for fellow state lawmakers or candidates
  • Creating a two-year "cooling off period" before a former lawmaker can become a lobbyist -- but it would exempt all current lawmakers
  • Barring lobbyists from paying for out-of-state travel and related expenses for state lawmakers
  • Requiring all lawmakers and state elected officials to complete one hour of ethics training within 120 days of taking office. Failure to do so would result in withholding that official’s salary until he or she completes ethics training
  • Requiring lobbyists to report everyone they represent “to the third degree,” to eliminate the practice of using “subcontractors” to hide who a lobbyist really works for
  • Requiring lobbyists to report expenditures made on behalf of all public officials

The bill does not include campaign contribution limits.  Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, sharply criticized that fact and tried to amend Richard’s bill:
“This is the way that we (should) show the people of Missouri that we care about ethics reform,” LeVota said Wednesday.  “We want to get rid of that cloud that there is any type of influence going on when it comes to campaign contributions.”

LeVota’s amendment was ruled out of order, as Richard argued that placing limits on campaign contributions and revising ethics guidelines are really two different subjects.

Senate Bill 11 was approved 31-0 on a roll-call Wednesday.  It needs another vote by the full Senate before it can move to the Missouri House.  State Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, is also sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment to install various ethics reforms and restore campaign contribution limits.  

Several Republican-backed ethics bills are also awaiting committee votes in the Missouri House.  Two bills are scheduled to be voted on next Monday, Feb. 9:  House Bill 225 (bars the governor from appointing lawmakers to a commission or new job in exchange for votes on bills), and House Bill 228 (requires a one-year waiting period before former lawmakers or state elected officials could work as lobbyists).   None of the House ethics bills currently being considered by the committee on government oversight would restore campaign contribution limits, focusing instead on government transparency and lobbying.

Why ethics reform is getting more attention

The last successful attempt to pass any ethics reforms occurred in 2010, when Gov. Jay Nixon signed Senate Bill 844 into law. Although it did not cap campaign contributions, it did bar committee-to-committee money transfers and gave the Missouri Ethics Commission the authority to launch investigations.  Shortly before its passage, former House Speaker Pro-tem Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, called it “the most sweeping and comprehensive ethics reform bill in the universe.”

The original version of SB 844 dealt with purchasing procedures, with the ethics language being added on in the final days of the 2010 regular session.  A circuit court judge ruled the new law unconstitutional, stating that it violated the single-subject clause.  The original language regarding purchasing procedures was left in place, and the Missouri Supreme Court later upheld the lower court decision.

Since then, most of the ethics reform proposals have been filed by Democrats, and those bills went nowhere. But 2015 has seen the House and Senate Republican majorities take more serious interests in changing the way lawmakers and lobbyists work with each other.  David Robertson, political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, suggests that new leaders, including House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, may be more sensitive to appearances of impropriety.

“It can be a real problem for people if some of the accusations that lobbyists are purchasing support can be validated in some way by the practices that occur in Jefferson City,” Robertson said.  “There’s a sense that citizens are uncomfortable…the idea that there would be lobbyists' dinners at country clubs doesn’t make the legislature look very good.”

Diehl last week ordered a halt to committee meetings at country clubs and restaurants, and this week ordered his committee chairmen to stop allowing meals to be served at meetings held inside the State Capitol.  Richard, who served as House speaker from 2009-10, approves of the move.

“(Diehl) did the right thing; I should have done it when I was speaker,” Richard said.  “When I had training with (House committee) chairmen, I told them that if there (were) meals in committees they’d better not be voting on that particular sponsors of the meal’s legislation, or I would ban them.”

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter:  @MarshallGReport

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