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Ethics overhaul gets skeptical reception from Missouri senators

Jason Rosenbaum | St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, strongly questioned whether the legislature was taking the right focus with its ethics overhaul.

Since a high-profile sex scandal was partly responsible for torpedoing the end of the 2015 session, some lawmakers have made improving the ethical climate of Jefferson City a priority.

But even though the Missouri House passed a flurry of bills early this session, some Missouri senators think the ethics push so far is missing the mark.

During debate over an effort to restrict when lawmakers could become lobbyist, Sen. Bob Dixon contended that the proposed ethics overhaul amount to “hocus pocus.” Besides temporarily closing the so-called “revolving door” between legislating and lobbying, the House passed a ban on lobbyist gifts and instituted more financial disclosure requirements. 

Sens. Ron Richard, left, and Bob Onder, right, speak at Thursday press conference. Onder handled a House bill that would set curbs on when lawmakers could become lobbyists.
Credit Mallory Daily I St. Louis Public Radio
Sens. Ron Richard, left, and Bob Onder, right, speak at Thursday press conference. Onder handled a House bill that would set curbs on when lawmakers could become lobbyists.

Dixon, R-Springfield, contended these initiatives have nothing to do with what caused both House Speaker John Diehl and Sen. Paul LeVota to resign. Diehl stepped down after it was revealed he exchanged sexually charged texts with interns, while LeVota was accused of sexual harassment.

“We are responding to press reports -- and I appreciate those sitting at the table, because they have reported the truth,” Dixon said. “But we are responding. We are reacting. We are not leading. We are responding to things that occurred last year. Deplorable things.

"Not one of the so-called ethics bills on the calendar will solve or address any of the things that occurred in this building last year or, well, this week.”

(Dixon was alluding to Rep. Don Gosen’s resignation. House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said that Gosen did something that warranted his resignation. The Ballwin Republican wouldn’t specify what actually happened to St. Louis Public Radio, though he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he had an affair.)

Dixon went on to say that the Senate “received in rapid fire from the House these bills that do not address the issues that we read about, the issues that we were shocked to hear about at the end of session last year.”

“Because nothing on paper (will force change) -- whether it's state law we call ethics, whether it’s the moral law from whatever book we read, it’s just on paper,” Dixon said. “What we have is a human heart problem. 

“The system is not corrupting. The system is innate,” Dixon said. “The problem is we have human beings involved. And there’s not one of us who’s perfect.”

Many of Dixon’s colleagues shared his antipathy toward a “revolving door” ban. Lawmakers from both parties expressed philosophical objections to the revolving door ban, and some questioned if it was really that serious of an issue.

“I look at this from a standpoint of individual liberty and economic freedom,” said Sen. Ed Emery, R-Lamar. “And in that context, it’s very difficult for me to say just kind of presumptuously all the voters are idiots and we have to regulate their choices. To me, that’s the concern here that we’re basically saying, ‘Well voters obviously can’t pick the right people that they can trust.’ So we as the legislature and the government are going to have to regulate that.”

Senators on Thursday removed a provision from a House bill that would have set a one-year ban for most lawmakers to become lobbyists. Instead, senators barred lawmakers from transitioning into lobbying until their term ends. 

“As you know on the floor, I did advocate for the one-year cooling off period – which was the House position,” said Sen. Bob Onder, a Lake Saint Louis Republican who handled the House bill. “In fact, I filed a bill that had a two-year cooling off period. But I think the biggest problem that we see and the problem that this still addresses is the problem of people leaving in the middle of their term and becoming lobbyists. And under this bill that we passed today by a vote of 31-1, we end that practice.”

Richardson pans Senate action

The Senate’s attitude toward the House ethics push didn’t get a terribly favorable reaction from House Speaker Todd Richardson.

The Poplar Bluff Republican said the slew of ethics bills passed earlier this year “do what I said they do at the beginning of session, which is take a step forward on improving the environment here in Jefferson City.” 

Members of the Missouri House have a different perspective than Missouri senators on ethics.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Members of the Missouri House have a different perspective than Missouri senators on ethics.

“And I think for members of the Senate to stand up and say that they’re opposed because they don’t go far enough? They’re one of two things. They’re either not serious about doing anything or they haven’t been following the way this debate’s gone in years past,” Richardson said. “This debate needs to happen.”

Unlike past ethics legislation, the House didn’t lump all the ideas together into one bill. Instead, the House passed each individual change in separate pieces of legislation – primarily to avoid treacherous legal challenges.

Richardson said he hoped that the details of the revolving door ban would be hashed out in a conference committee. And he went onto say that he doesn’t “think a revolving door ban ought to be that controversial of an issue.

“We did them with overwhelming bipartisan majorities for most of them,” Richardson said. “And so, I hope the senators that have those concerns will find a way to get over them. Because we’re going to pass and we are going to put on the governor’s desk substantive, meaningful ethics reform. And if that means I have to attach ethics reform to every single Senate bill that comes over here, I’m willing to do it.”

As to Dixon’s points, Rep. Elijah Haahr said he voted for the House ethics bills to attempt “to repair the image of Jefferson City and what we do here.

“It’s important that they have trust in the process,” said Haahr, R-Springfield. “Particularly like issues like the revolving door, we don’t want there to be the appearance of impropriety. So I think these are good substantive moves forward. I understand the concern that the issues that happened last year, these are not directly tied to those. We’ve attempted to take internal steps with the appointment of the ombudsman and to focus on those problems specifically.

“There will always be problems in state Capitols,” he added. “Even in states with the toughest ethics laws, there will always be problems. And you can’t fix that 100 percent. These are, what we believe, are the House’s best attempts to move that debate forward.”

Richard’s perspective

Senate Pro Tem Ron Richard served as speaker of the House from 2009 to 2011. He said that he understands the frustration of not getting a priority passed right away, adding that he’s “not naïve enough to know that something sent from the House is going to be taken up by the Senate and passed just because it happens to be a great idea.” 

House Speaker Todd Richardson and Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard spent time talking in the Senate chamber on Wednesday.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
House Speaker Todd Richardson and Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard spent time talking in the Senate chamber on Wednesday.

But the Joplin Republican didn’t think the disagreement over ethics overhaul would strain relations between the House and Senate.

“I’ve been visiting with the speaker several times a day since we started. I’ve been over there. I’ve been in his shoes,” said Richard. “When you have a priority and you think it is really important and you want that to happen really, really bad and it doesn’t happen – I mean I’ve been frustrated with the Senate. It’s easy to get frustrated over here.

“I mean we’re a frustrating group. I’m frustrated with the Senate,” he added. “I mean, you saw some of the amendments [to the revolving door bill]. I thought some of them were unique and where they came from I don’t know.”

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.