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Goodbye to all that? Missouri lawmakers dragging feet on lobbyist-gift ban

File photo | Marshall Griffin | St. Louis Public Radio

Free stuff from lobbyists — anything from free meals to concert and game tickets to trips abroad — are part of the perks of being a lawmaker.

Such gifts, though, have been on the chopping block for a couple of years, with Missouri Republican legislative leaders and now Gov. Eric Greitens looking to ban them. In the face of last year’s failed efforts to ban lobbyist gifts, Greitens took quick action once in office.

“I signed an executive order banning gifts from lobbyists to state employees of the executive branch, (and) I think all elected officials should do the same,” Greitens said during his State of the State address in January.

But there’s been no movement for nearly two months on this session’s bills. The House passed HB 60 on Jan. 17, and a Senate committee conducted a joint hearing on it and on the Senate version, SB 305.

With less than two months left in the 2017 session, which ends May 12, it remains to be seen whether what was once a strong priority for the GOP will pass at all.

The history

The gifts that lawmakers have received vary. In 2015, several members from both political parties went to Israel on someone else’s dime. Between 2007 and 2014, legislators ate nearly $67,000 worth of free barbecue.

More likely, House and Senate members are given tickets to concerts and sporting events, such as:

·         St. Louis Cardinals games (including the 2013 World Series);

·         St. Louis Blues games, including the postseason;

·         Mizzou football games, including the 2014 Cotton Bowl in Arlington, Texas;

·         Beyonce concert in St. Louis;

·         Paul McCartney concert in St. Louis

Seven years ago, the legislature passed a wide-ranging ethics reform bill that banned money transfers between campaign committees, but not a lobbyist gift ban. (It was later struck down by the Missouri Supreme Court.)

The proposed ban didn’t become a priority until two years ago, after former Speaker John Diehl resigned in the wake of a sexting scandal. His successor, Todd Richardson, said Jefferson City needed to be cleaned up, and believed banning gifts was part of the solution.

Last year’s proposed ban, HB 2166, also passed quickly out of the House. But Senate Republicans failed to follow their House counterparts’ footsteps, largely because some thought the definition of a gift was too broadly written.

This disagreement was illustrated during a floor debate between senators Dave Schatz, R-Sullivan, and Kiki Curls, D-Kansas City.

“Has anybody ever seen there’s leftover pizza and had a piece of it? What I know is if there was a box of pizza and I came by your office, and a lobbyist paid for that pizza, and I walked by and I picked up the pizza and ate it, all of a sudden now I’m guilty of violating the thing that we banned everybody from partaking in,” Schatz said.

“I agree with you,” said Curls. “I think we need to have time to think about this because in a number of ways, I’m thinking about potential unintended consequences.”

Credit File photo | Jason Rosenbaum I St. Louis Public Radio
Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann.

This year’s House measure is being sponsored by Republican Rep. Justin Alferman of Hermann. Alferman, who also sponsored the 2016 bill, said the real problem is that lawmakers have grown accustomed to getting free stuff.

“In Jeff City, public servants come down here and get into the mindset of, ‘Well, this is just how it is,’ and don’t even question the motives or the reasoning behind it,” he said. “That’s a problem whenever we get complacent in that type of situation.”

Senate leaders are downplaying the nearly two-month delay. President Pro-tem Ron Richard, R-Joplin, says it’s just that other bills were more important. He cited right-to-work, which was passed by both chambers and signed by Greitens within a month of his taking office.

“Looking at our calendar with some of these reforms, they’ve kind of allowed the majority (floor) leader to go to some labor and some tort reforms, Richard said. “We’re thinking that’s important, but I suspect we’ll be getting back to that ethics legislation at some point, if we can find some kind of common ground, sure.”

And despite Greitens’ call for banning lobbyist gifts, his own actions have Democrats crying foul.

The Republican created a nonprofit organization called “A New Missouri” to advocate for his policy agendas. Because it’s a nonprofit, donors can give as much money to it as they want and remain anonymous.

Some lawmakers have decided to push back against Greitens by targeting the proposed lobbyist gift ban, even though the two are technically unrelated. Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur, wants to add language to the House bill that would require full disclosure of donors’ names and contributions to the governor’s new nonprofit.

“When we have so much dark money at the executive office level still out there, I think that we need to focus and keep bringing attention to that,” she said.

It’s unlikely that Republican leaders will go along with Democrats’ wishes on shining a light on “dark money.” But both parties may have to fight that battle on another field if they want to pass a ban on lobbyist gifts before the end of session.

Follow Marshall Griffin on Twitter: @MarshallGReport

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

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