St. Louis Public Radio News
1:04 pm
Tue January 26, 2010

Mo. lawmakers examine ethics bills

Jefferson City, Mo. – Several bills designed to improve ethics in Missouri politics were the subject of hearings Tuesday at the State Capitol.

Lawmakers from both parties are sponsoring bills they say will remove corrupting influences from the way state government is run, from banning gifts to lawmakers to hiring a full-time investigator for the Missouri Ethics Commission.

State Representative Kevin Wilson (R, Neosho) chairs a special committee set up to oversee ethics reform.

"My goal is to get a bill out of this committee on a bipartisan manner that we can support...(it is) going to take little bits and pieces, I think, from all the bills," Wilson said.

Wilson also said he's open to the idea of campaign contribution limits being included in his committee's bill, which Democrats strongly favor.

But many Republicans, including the head of the Missouri Senate, do not.

Senate President Pro-tem Charlie Shields (R, St. Joseph) is sponsoring legislation that would bar campaign contributions while the General Assembly is in session, and would provide the Missouri Ethics Commission with a full-time investigator.

Joe Ortwerth, a conservative activist, minister and former Republican House Member, spoke in favor of the bill before the Senate Committee on Rules, Joint Rules, Resolutions and Ethics.

"Any action that the Senate and the House can take together to give the Ethics Commission the teeth and the resources to truly be a watchdog that has a...bite as well as a bark...is crucial here," Ortwerth said.

No vote was taken by the Senate committee Tuesday.

In the Missouri House, the Special Standing Committee on Government Accountability and Ethics Reform conducted hearings on five ethics bills.

One sponsored by State Representative Rachel Bringer (D, Palmyra) would bar lawmakers from accepting any tangible or intangible item, service, or anything of value from a lobbyist. Fellow Democrat Terry Witte of Vandalia asked if the bill would ban such items as free coffee mugs from the State Troopers Association. Bringer answered that it would be better to refuse a coffee mug, or to at least buy it.

"The reality is, with $231,000 in gifts floating around in 2009, there's certainly the perception, if not the reality, that those who are giving very large gifts are having some kind of special access in terms of the policy and budget in this state," Bringer told the committee.

Another bill, co-sponsored by House members Timothy Flook (R, Liberty) and Jason Kander (D, Kansas City) would make it a Class D felony to use gifts to influence the outcome of legislation.