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Missouri Legislature opens, lawmakers promise focus on ethics and budget

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Jan. 6, 2010 - The Missouri General Assembly gaveled into session today, kicking off a five-month odyssey that's expected to focus heavily on the state's budget and lawmakers' ethics.

The first day's session had little formal business, beyond swearing in new state Rep. Stacey Newman, D-St. Louis County, and canceling Thursday's session because of a bad weather forecast. House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, and Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, both addressed their respective chambers.

In their addresses, both Shields and Richard supported economic development packages aimed at bringing jobs to the state.

But, in the face of revenue shortfalls, they acknowledged that they will have to make tough decisions to balance the budget, as the state constitution requires.

Richard's speech highlighted a need for "fiscal discipline and prudence" to become "bywords for this session."

"The people demand nothing less with their tax dollars, and we will give them nothing less," Richard said. "We will commit ourselves to being prudent fiscal managers of public monies."

Shields said though the General Assembly was "prudent" to set aside $1 billion of federal stimulus money to stabilize the budget. But, he said, "those dollars will run out."

"The solution to our budget situation is to put people back to work in good-paying jobs with benefits," Shields said. "Our state's revenue is reliant on people working and participating in our economy."

Shadow of corruption hangs over session

But the ethical -- or unethical -- conduct of lawmakers also loomed over opening day. Former Rep. T.D. El-Amin, D-St. Louis, was sentenced today for bribery, while former House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, was arraigned in court in southeast Missouri on a felony assault charge.

And the two new members of the General Assembly -- Newman and state Sen. Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis -- are replacing two Democratic lawmakers who resigned after pleading guilty to felony charges. El-Amin's replacement will take office after a special election later in the year.

The misconduct of the Democratic lawmakers -- plus Jetton's controversial tenure as House speaker -- prompted lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to introduce ethics legislation this session. Richard has even created a special committee to handle ethics-related bills.

"Regardless of party affiliation, we can all agree that the sanctity of this body is important," Richard said in his speech. "From this point forward, we commit ourselves to gain and hold the faith that the people of Missouri have in their elected representatives."

Lawmakers introduced numerous ethics-related proposals in the waning days of 2009. Shields, for example, proposed banning lobbyists from contributing to campaigns during the session. Reps. Jason Kander, D-Kansas City, and Tim Flook, R-Clay County, proposed restrictions on outside campaign committees and on the exchange of legislative favors for campaign contributions. House Majority Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, proposed banning lawmakers from serving as political consultants -- as Jetton did -- and instituting a waiting period before legislators may become lobbyists or acccept an executive appointment.

Disagreements on capping campaign contributions

Everyone may agree that ethics are important, but that doesn't mean they don't see eye to eye on the particulars.

Republicans and Democrats differ, for example, on whether to cap campaign contributions. Democrats -- and Gov. Jay Nixon -- favor limits, while Republicans generally oppose them.

House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, said during a press conference that ethics legislation would be incomplete without limits.

"Now in the state of Missouri, it's perfectly OK to give a candidate for state representative $100,000" even though you can't give that to a presidential candidate, LeVota said, adding that lawmakers should respect a ballot initiative on the issue from the 1990s.

Richard has said that he will support any ethics legislation that comes out of the House -- even with campaign finance limits. But the issue may be a non-starter in the Missouri Senate, where a majority of lawmakers voted to do away with limits in 2008.

When asked if the Democratic caucus in the House was setting itself up for failure because the Senate would oppose limits, LeVota said that the people of Missouri "want comprehensive ethics reform."

"We're going to continue to fight for things that we think will improve accountability, and hopefully we can get through," LeVota said.

Still, Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence -- who voted to repeal campaign finance limits in 2008 -- said he didn't know that limits were the answer.

"Just having limits on campaign committees is not a good idea," Callahan added. "The limits should be on everything. And I think the advocates of limits would say that."

Legislators also disagree about whether to ban lobbyist-paid meals, entertainment and travel. Shields said last week that a ban on gifts from lobbyists -- which was proposed by Tilley -- may not be the best focus.

"There's going to be a discussion around it," Shields said. "I would challenge that is one of the areas where reform will make a significant amount of difference. I think campaign finance, where the real money (is) and trying to add transparency so people can see who's supporting who and where the money's coming from, I think that's where the real reform is coming from."

Jason Rosenbaum is a freelance writer who covers Missouri state politics. 

Jason is the politics correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.

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