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On the Trail, an occasional column by St. Louis Public Radio political reporter Jason Rosenbaum, takes an analytical look at politics and policy across Missouri.

On the Trail: Greitens banks on lawmakers to pass tighter ethics rules

Missouri lawmakers listen to Gov. Eric Greitens speak earlier this month during his State of the State address.
Tim Bommel I House Communications
Missouri lawmakers listen to Gov. Eric Greitens speak earlier this month during his State of the State address.

If Missourians were near a television screen over the past year, they probably caught wind of how Eric Greitens wanted to overhaul the ethical culture in Jefferson City. His advertisements weren’t exactly a study in subtlety, especially when they showcased his desire to blow up politics as usual by sparking an explosion with a gun.

Now that Greitens is Missouri’s governor, the Republican official can’t just rely on metaphorical flourishes to get his agenda translated into laws. Instead, Greitens will need to depend on some of the politicians he derided in ads to get his ethics agenda past the finish line.

“Many of you have been good keepers of the public’s trust,” Greitens said during his State of the State address. “But too many good, strong public servants have come here only to see the will of the people obstructed and corrupted by insiders and lobbyists. This is a big place, with a powerful purpose, and it has too often been consumed by small goals and petty politics.” 

Whether Greitens’ words bolster momentum to overhaul Missouri’s ethics laws remain to be seen. Past efforts have found mixed success, and have often run into bipartisan opposition in the Missouri Senate. And it’s an open question if the proposed changes will deter lawmakers from behaving unethically.

And there’s an added wrinkle to the ethics discussion: Uncertainty on what Missouri’s campaign finance system will look like after litigation against a recently-passed donation limit amendment runs its course.

Still, Republicans who control the legislature are willing to give the renewed ethics push a try – especially if it cleans up the tarnished pubic perception of state politics that Greitens spoke about during last year’s campaign.

“The combination of things we’re trying to do to improve overall the culture here in Jefferson City will improve the environment here,” said House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff. “And beyond that, I think it’s just the right thing to do.”

You just made the list

During his State of the State speech, focused on several major priorities: Banning legislators from taking meals, entertainment and travel from lobbyists; expanding the “cooling off” period before lawmakers can lobby; and amending the Missouri Constitution to apply term limits to statewide officials. 

Credit Bill Greenblatt | UPI
Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens is congratulated by legislators after delivering his first State of the State speech to the Missouri Legislature.

“This is the people’s government, and these basic measures will begin to restore our people’s trust in government,” Greitens said the speech.

At this early point in the legislative session, the term limit and cooling off period bills haven’t gone terribly far. But a bill largely curtailing lobbyist gifts passed the House fairly quickly.

Lawmakers from both parties have been trying to rein in lobbyist freebies for years, with little success. Detractors of the practice say it gives representatives of powerful interest groups a slice of time that wouldn’t be afforded to ordinary citizens. And even some lobbyists like former state Rep. Rodney Hubbard have expressed wariness about catering to lawmakers’ whims.

“Eighty or 90 percent of the people you ever talk to about an issue are where they are going to be anyway,” said Hubbard during a 2015 episode of the Politically Speaking podcast. “So when it comes to wining and dining, it takes up a lot of your time. You could be at a baseball game, you could be at a football game – but most people would rather be out with their families.”

State Rep. Justin Alferman’s bill bars most lobbyist gifts, with some exceptions. Some Democrats objected to, among other things, a provision that would allow lobbyists to provide free dinners, as long as every lawmaker and statewide elected official receives a written invitation to the event within 72 hours. Still, only five House members ended up voting against Alferman’s legislation.

“While it’s not perfect, it’s a start,” said state Rep. Donna Baringer, D-St. Louis. “We had nothing prior, now we have something. So from that perspective, I think it’s a good start.”

Senate roadblock?

Despite some early rhetorical and legislative momentum, there’s no guarantee that lawmakers will end up satisfying Greitens’ ethics agenda. 

Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, speaks with reporters on Thursday.
Credit Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, says he's in favor of stronger ethics laws. But he also said that there are limits to what rules can do to change people's behavior.

Efforts to pass strict lobbyist gift bans and longer cooling off periods have run into Senate opposition. And Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard wasn't enthusiastic about Greitens’ proposal to impliment a “one-to-one” cooling off period. That would mean if somebody served in the legislature for 16 years, they’d have to wait 16 years before they could lobby.

Last year, some members of the Missouri Senate raised philosophical objections to the direction of ethics bills. Some lawmakers in that chamber, like Sen. Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, have said that the public perception of what lobbyists do is often misunderstood.

“People have a negative connotation toward lobbyists. Lobbyists are people that provide information,” said Schatz during a 2016 edition of Politically Speaking. “And there’s probably a misunderstanding on what a lobbyist does. They’re probably not looked on any higher than politicians, used car salesman or anybody else.”

Others have contended that there isn’t an obvious nexus between curtailing lobbyist gifts or making it more difficult for legislators to lobby and why ethical behavior became such a big issue recently:High-profile scandals involving lawmaker infidelity and sexual harassment.

During a recent episode of Politically Speaking, Richard was asked if the environment in Jefferson City prompted bad behavior – or whether certain legislators carried existing character flaws into the Missouri Capitol. The Joplin Republican recounted an anecdote from when he served as speaker of the Missouri House.

“I walked in and told my members … ‘You keep your pants on around here. You keep your behavior as if your mother was watching you,’” Richard said. “’If you do something to embarrass me or your other members, I will strip you of all your committees. I will strip you of your parking spot.’ And that last about two hours – and some of these guys started acting up again.”

Richard said he’s supportive of tighter ethics laws. But he also said lawmakers need to exercise self-control – and hold themselves accountable.

“I do know right from wrong and I do know that don’t do something your mother wouldn’t want you to do,” he said.

In any case, House and Senate leaders say they’re beginning their ethics push early to haggle out disagreements before session ends in May. And with a Republican governor nudging them forward, the GOP-controlled legislature may have a bit more urgency to deliver.

“You have senators who have voiced their opposition, but the senators have kind of run a spectrum of what their opposition is,” said state Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, when asked about legislation curbing lobbyist gifts. “You have some senators that are just philosophically opposed to it. And then there’s another one or two senators that say ‘well, I don’t agree with the way it’s written, but if we make these changes and dive more into the weeds and kind of massage these issues,’ then it’s something I could vote for.”

Campaign finance uncertainty

In past years when ethics was high on the legislative agenda, some lawmakers questioned the lack of attention on also capping campaign donations. But that’s not the case now, since voters approved a constitutional amendment known Amendment 2 that sets up contribution limits. 

House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty says lawmakers should focus on dealing with some the inadequacies of a recently-passed constitutional amendment laying out contribution limits.
Credit Tim Bommel I House Communications
House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty says lawmakers should focus on dealing with some the inadequacies of a recently-passed constitutional amendment laying out contribution limits.

Still, the future of that amendment is up in the air – as several lawsuits challenging various provisions are winding through the courts. 

And as these suits threaten to cut out critical aspects of the amendment, some Democrats hope to expand the state’s donation limits – especially since the new arrangement doesn’t cap the size of contributions to outside political action committees or to local candidate committees. 

“Campaign finance limits are, at least in my opinion, a much greater point that we need to deal with,” said House Minority Leader Gail McCann Beatty, D-Kansas City. “One of the things Amendment 2 does is it really shifts the power to the House and Senate campaign committees. And I am afraid we are actually creating less transparency by going this route, rather than greater transparency.”

(Greitens' Republican and Democratic adversaries have chastised him for taking large donations from PACs with mysterious contributors.)

The lawsuits aren’t the only thing that could drastically alter the strength of the donation limit amendment. The Missouri Ethics Commission declined to issue opinions on some of the lingering questions behind the amendment as the lawsuits are pending.That includes whether somebody who raised unlimited amounts of money in a local or county committee can shift those funds to a state-based committee. (Missouri Ethics Commission executive director James Klahr said he’s unable to comment about the donation limit amendment.)

With ample amount of uncertainty, Richardson said lawmakers will probably wait until the legal smoke clears before pursuing any type of legislation.

“Making sure we have a fair and open and transparent campaign finance system is certainly something we want to have,” Richardson said. “There are a number of issues and a number of questions that seem to have been left unaddressed by Amendment 2. To the extent that there’s an opportunity to clarify some of those things and make sure we have a workable system, we’ll certainly be open to that. But I do think it’s going to take a little bit of time to figure out exactly what universe we’re operating in.”

On the Trail, a weekly column, weaves together some of the intriguing threads from the world of Missouri politics. 

Follow Jason on Twitter: @jrosenbaum

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