Major ethics reform appears on the horizon
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Major ethics reform appears on the horizon

Date: January 26, 2010
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau
Links: HB 1324 HB 1326 HB 1337 HB 1433 HB 1414 SB 577

JEFFERSON CITY - There is bi-partisan support in both houses of Missouri's General Assembly for at least some aspects of major reform to Missouri's ethics laws. A special House committee devoted to the issue heard four proposals that could alter how elections are funded and how much influence lobbyists will have on the lawmaking process.

The legislation, if approved as written, would set caps on individual campaign contributions, expand the definition of a lobbyist and restrict their abilities to donate to campaigns or contribute to politicians. One proposal would make illegal the exact crime that, at the federal level, got a state Senator thrown in prison.

Two of the House bills would also limit campaign contributions from individuals. One of the bills, sponsored by Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra, would also make Missouri the fourth state in the nation to ban legislators from receiving any gifts from registered lobbyists, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Bringer's bill was far more restrictive than the one filed by Rep. Gary Dusenberg, R-Blue Springs. Her bill would cap contributions for statewide office at $1,250 per person, half that for state Senate races, and 1/4th of the total for state House contests.

Dusenberg's legislation began the cap at $3,000 for statewide and scales down the same way Bringer's bill does. However, his bill would only limit cash donations and not place any caps on "in-kind" contributions, while Bringer's bill would include both.

Neither bill was met with overwhelming support; Dusenberg's was called too relaxed, and some Democrats said Bringer's legislation would be too much of a change from the current system, which places no limits on lobbyist gifts. Committee Chairman Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, said the wording was so strict it would prohibit literally every interaction between lobbyists and legislators.

"I know the intent, but somebody pointed out, that the way this is written, a lobbyist couldn't even hand you a piece of paper," Wilson said. "I think whatever comes out of this bill will have to be reworded."

In addition, the lone bill originating in the Senate Rules Committee would establish an independent commission to file and investigate ethics complaints against officials.  The bill, filed by Senate Speaker Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, also would require all General Assembly staff members to file yearly income reports the same way legislators and candidates for state office do.

Shields said this provision, which was met with skepticism by the committee's Democrats, was necessary because Missouri limits legislators to serving just eight years in each house of the Assembly.  As a result, Shields said, there are staff members who have been at the capitol longer than any legislator.

"In the era of term limits, most people would argue that the ability to influence legislation rests not only on elected officials, but with the staff," Shields said following the hearing. "There are staffers who are more influential and familiar with lobbyists than some legislators."

Shields' provision to create an independent commission that could file ethics complaints on its own seemed to get support from the two Democrats on the Senate committee. Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lake, said it would be a dramatic improvement over the current system, which requires an outside party to file a complaint before an investigation can begin.

"For years with the Ethics Commission, we had been given a false impression they were there to investigate," Green said. "All ethics has done is report and nothing else."

The legislation co-sponsored by Reps. Tim Flook, R-Liberty, and Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, would make obstructing an ethics investigation a felony.  Kander was the only speaker Tuesday to mention shamed former Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, by name on Tuesday, when other officials referred to "the actions of a small few" as being the impetus for any ethics proposals. 

Kander said that, had Smith and former Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton, lied to state investigators instead of the FBI, it would not have been a crime. The two were convicted of felonies in federal court for lying to the FBI about their role in distributing flyers that attacked Russ Carnahan during Smith's race against him in the 2004 Democratic primary for Congress. Smith is currently serving a year-long prison term.

"That is a loophole you can drive a truck through," Kander said. "Before this, we have created an incentive to lie to investigators, because it's not a serious crime to impede an ethics investigations."

Although Bringer said she hoped her bills could be passed Tuesday, Wilson said the Ethics committee would combine all the pertinent bills into one, to be introduced at a later date.  He said he hoped to begin the process next week. 

Kander emphasized that he thinks ethics reform should be the primary focus of the state legislative session, because it will have a domino effect on how all bills are influenced.

"I know this might seem like just another issue, but to me it is the issue for one reason," Kander said. "This affects how everything else is done in this body."

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