JEFFERSON CITY - With increased attention on the practice of lobbyists gripping the U.S. Congress' attention, some Missouri legislators are seeking to change lobbyist regulations.
In the Missouri legislature, meals, travel and entertainment paid for by lobbyists are legal, as long as the expenditures are disclosed to the Missouri Ethics Commission. A look at records from 2005 show Columbia legislators are receiving meals, travel and entertainment from sources close to home.
In 2005, Rep. Judy Baker, D-Columbia, Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, Rep. Jeff Harris, D-Columbia, Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia and Rep. Wes Shoemyer, D-Clarence, received a combined total of over $8,000 in meals, travel and entertainment from lobbyists.
Through the combined efforts of Stephen Knorr, Martin Oetting, Erin Elliot and Allen James Snider, the UM system were one of the biggest organizations providing meals, beverages, entertainment and travel to these legislators in 2005.
Knorr gave $989 of meals and entertainment to Boone County legislators. This amount is the most out of any lobbyist providing meals, entertainment and travel to Boone County legislators.
Knorr said it is not necessarily unusual that the university would top that list.
"We are the biggest employer for the city and the county," he said.
It is common practice for the university system to give out tickets to sporting events to legislators.
Joe Moore, vice president of public affairs for the UM system, said there is no line the budget for providing gifts to politicians. He said those funds come from the private University of Missouri Alumni Alliance.
Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said it is important to see what the university is trying to accomplish.
"If the dean of the College of Engineering wants to talk to me about funding he needs for his labs and takes me to a basketball game, and talks to me about that, he's gotten an opportunity to do that through the 'gifting process,'" Graham said. "I don't think that the university should be handicapped by not doing that when private entities do that all the time."
Another lobbyist representing another powerful Mid-Missouri entity -- the City of Columbia -- also gave a sizable amount of meals and entertainment to Boone county legislators.
Terry Schlemeier, who's list of clients includes the City of Columbia and AmerenUE. According to the commission, Schlemeier gave $850.27 in meals and entertainment opportunities to the six legislators in 2005.
Schlemeier provided 24 meals and entertainment opprotunities to Boone County legislators, the most out of any lobbyist. William A. Gamble, a lobbyist for nearly 60 organizations including Wal-Mart Inc., Ameristar Casinos and Washington University, was second with 20. Drue Duncan, who represents Union Electric Company DBA AmerenUE, was third with 16.
- Out of the six legislators that represent parts of Boone County, Hobbs received $2,227 of meals, travel and entertainment opportunities from lobbyists, the most out of the six legislators. Graham was second with $1,957.96, while Baker was third with $1,677.08.
- Shoemyer received $890.89 of meals and entertainment, Harris received $864.39 worth and Robb received $383, the least out of the six.
- Graham received 64 meals and entertainment oppronuities, the most out of the six. Robb received the least with 11.
Ethic commission guidelines state that "corporations, association or organization may provide amenities, such as travel, meals, entertainment, living quarters or honorarium, to public official so long as such amenities are reported on the lobbyist's semiannual expenditure report."
Harris filed a bill to require lobbyists to report how much they're getting from their employers. But it does not require more detailed reporting on what the legislators got from the lobbyists.
Harris said ideas like putting more descriptive information and even banning lobbyist gifts altogether could be on the table.
"When it comes to government reform, we ought to at least explore a number of different possibilities," Harris said. "And if you can get consensus behind an idea, then you can get that idea passed."
Graham said detailing what the gifts are in the disclosure report would be helpful.
"The more information the voters have, the voters can make the decision whether that's an appropriate thing or not," he said.
He said an example of such a question would be whether voters think it's appropriate for the university to bring legislators to a basketball game.
"I think people in my district don't have a problem with that," Graham said. "I think they would think that's a good expenditure of the university's resources to try and build legislative support. There might people who think they shouldn't do those things. It's a matter of perspective."
Robb said he doesn't see a need for Harris' bill.
"It's up to the individual company or group that wants to hire the lobbyist," Robb said. "The most important thing is the amount of gifts, from those individuals, that's what really matters."
Harris said it would restore Missourians' faith and address some of their cynicism about government in the wake of scandals in Washington involving Abramoff and Rep. Tom Delay, R-Texas.
Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, said he's going to bring up two bills that passed the House last year but didn't make it into law during this legislative session.
"I think we've got a couple of members that are putting an ethics package together," Jetton said.
Jetton said he does not know the specifics of the proposal. "They haven't introduced the bill yet," Jetton said.
Rep. Rachel Storch, D-St. Louis, filed two bills last week related to lobbyist gifts. One would prohibit a legislator from accepting a gift valued at more than $50 or an aggregate annual value of more than $100. The other bill would prohibit lobbyists from paying for out-of-state travel.
Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, introduced a bill last Tuesday to the Missouri Senate to ban legislators from accepting "meals, food, beverage, or other gifts" from lobbyists.
But despite talk of reform of the lobbyist process in Missouri, Robb said he's not sure if there's a serious problem with the system.
"I don't know of any representative who is going to change a vote or introduce a bill or work against a piece of legislation for a meal or tickets to a ball game," he said. "There may be, but I don't know any yet."
While Jetton said the system could always be better, he said Missouri is a "progressive" state from a disclosure standpoint.
"I think disclosure's always your best answer," he said. "People always say put limits on this and that. But typically when you try to put limits, people try and go around them. So I think your best bet is to have full disclosure."