JEFFERSON CITY - Region and ideology might divide them, but members of the 101 Capitol Complex Caucus are united by one thing -- their office complex.
The ten Missouri state House representatives who squeeze their way through the narrow and cramped complex started the group four years ago as an avenue to mingle.
"We started the 101 Caucus because we wanted to have a yearly crab boil," said Rep. J.C. Kuessner, D-Eminence and a member of the 101 Capitol Complex Caucus.
Yet records acquired from the Missouri Ethics Commission reveal that some members of the 101 Caucus received more than a plateful of crab legs in 2005.
Hundreds of dollars worth of meals and entertainment were given to the caucus from lobbyists, including a $222.50 entertainment package from a lobbyist representing the Missouri Automobile Dealers Association and a $161.69 meal from a Union Electric lobbyist.
And this is not an anomaly. Several other groups in the Missouri House -- such as the 109 Caucus, the 201 Caucus and the 4th Floor Freshman Caucus -- band together lawmakers who were assigned to a similar spot at the Capitol. Members of these three groups took over $10,000 worth of gifts from lobbyists last year.
Critics say groups like these are smokescreens that allow lawmakers to keep gifts from lobbyists out of public view. Current regulations place only the name of the caucus, not the legislators who received the gift, onto public disclosure records.
"There's probably a reason to have caucuses built around interest areas and things like that," said Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph. "But a caucus surrounded by the geography of the State Capitol? I don't know if that makes any sense at all."
Shields has sponsored one With two bills introduced in the Missouri legislature last week to curtail thousands of dollars worth of meals, entertainment and travel from going to caucuses, there is increased scrutiny about the purpose -- and motivations -- of the groups.
The Senate majority leader said the result of his bill would likely mean a stark reduction in the amount of caucuses.
"There's been an explosion of caucuses," Shields said. "I think it relates to that reporting system."
His bill is similar to a measure offered last week by the House GOP leader.
But both bills provide an exemption for the largest caucus recipients -- the House and Senate caucuses of the two parties. Reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission show those four groups were among the biggest recipients of lobbyists' gifts.
Which led one Democrat to question whether either bill would do enough to reform the lobbyist disclosure system.
"I'm not so sure it's a complete ban," said Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County.
Bray sponsored a bill in the legislative session that would ban all meals, entertainment travel gifts given to lawmakers from lobbyists.
She said Shields' bill doesn't go far enough to reform the system.
"I'm concerned it wouldn't make a big difference in how we operate now," she said.
Central Missouri lawmakers say they would not hindered if they could no longer receive meals, entertainment or travel through caucuses.
"If they did away with all caucuses, would it make any difference to me? I don't care," said Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico. "It's not a big deal to me."
"I can't see that they hurt, I can't if they help that much," Hobbs added. "Big deal, whatever."
Rep. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, said it would be fine with him they did away lobbyists' gifts to caucuses.
"I haven't got a plane ticket out of one or a concert ticket out of one," Shoemyer said.
Still, some Boone County legislators defended what they perceived as legitimate caucuses. House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, gave the example of the University of Missouri Caucus, which he co-founded with former state current U.S. Rep. Russ Carnahan, D-Missouri.
"The purpose of that caucus is to get people together on behalf of the university," Harris said of the caucus, which records show received no gifts from lobbyists last year. "Just because caucus isn't one of these traditional caucuses, doesn't mean it doesn't have a good purpose."
But while he argues some caucuses are useful -- and essential -- for legislators, Shoemyer acknowledged there is a potential for abuses, such using a caucus as a means to gifts off of disclosure reports.
"If there's room for scrutiny, that's probably one of the places that will scrutinized," Shoemyer said.
Neither bill filed by the legislative GOP leaders would require members of the four main caucuses who take the meals, entertainment or travel from lobbyists to place the expenditure on their disclosure report.
Soon after the GOP leaders introduced their bills, Harris introduced his how that would require all caucus gifts to be reported as individual gifts to legislators -- including the four party caucuses.
"Taxpayers are entitled to know which legislators are eating the meals, receiving the gifts," Harris said. "Let's stop avoiding disclosure and require these expenditures to be specifically reported."
Shields said people looking at the reports could have a good idea about who received an expenditure from a lobbyist.
"You can generally assume that at most caucus event that are sponsored by the main caucuses, I think you can consider most legislators that are in those caucuses will be there," Shields said.
In the meantime, Kuessner, who supports limiting lobbyist gifts to caucuses, said the 101 Capitol Complex will persevere -- even if the group can no longer receive gifts from lobbyists.
"I bring up the cooker and the gas and the potatoes and stuff like that," Kuessner said. "We all chip in something anyway, so it's not a big deal."