Missouri House Considers Ethics Changes. Here's What The Proposal Would (And Wouldn't) Do
The Missouri House could debate a bill this week that would enact some changes to how lobbying is conducted and disclosed in Jefferson City.
Currently, there are no limits on how much a lawmaker can receive in gifts from lobbyists. The gifts from lobbyists can include anything from food and drinks to expensive travel to sports tickets. Altogether, lobbyists spend about $1 million each year on the gifts.
A bill by state Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, would make some changes to lobbying practices, but it wouldn't be the sweeping ethics reform that many have called for.
Here's some analysis of what Rowden's bill would and wouldn't do if it becomes law.
- Lobbyists couldn't give gifts worth more than $50 to individual lawmakers.
Looking back through Lobbying Missouri* data from last year, lawmakers received 1,832 gifts valued at more than $50 each, totaling nearly a quarter of a million dollars. Judging from the past decade's worth of data, on average the proposed limit would have blocked about 15 percent of all lobbyists gifts.
- Gifts worth less than $9 given outside of legislative committees would no longer have to be disclosed.
Last year lobbyists gave 1,718 gifts that were worth less than $9 each, totaling $9,835.96. Of course, it's impossible to know how many of those gifts were given outside of a legislative committee (and would thus not be disclosed). However, the change could mean a considerable number of gifts will no longer be made public.
- A single lobbyist is capped at spending $750 on any one lawmaker each quarter.
This change would likely not have much practical impact, and here's why: There are a lot of lobbyists. According to Missouri Ethics Commission records, there are 1,006 current, active lobbyists. Let's say each of them decided to give $750 in gifts to a lawmaker. In this unlikely situation, that lawmaker would get $754,500 worth of gifts every three months.
Some might scoff at that hypothetical (and they probably should). But companies that hire lobbyists often don't just hire one. Ameren (one of Missouri's biggest lobbyists), for example, has 31 lobbyists, according to Missouri Ethics Commission records. The utility giant could split up the gifts among its 31 registered lobbyists and would still be legally allowed to spend $93,000 on gifts for one lawmaker each year (or $23,250 every three months).
In an interview with Rowden, the bill's sponsor, he says it's his plan for this provision to be removed.
"Yeah, that was never the intent," he said. "When I had my gift cap in the initial bill, that wasn't the case, and when we combined a few bills together it caused some issues."
Rowden says in its place, there would be a hard cap at $1,500 in gifts per lawmaker per year. Last year, nearly 40 percent of lawmakers would have reached the limit.
- Lawmakers couldn't use committees to skirt disclosure for some gifts.
Under Missouri's current system, gifts can be disclosed as going to individual lawmakers. But they can also be disclosed as going to committees or groups, which hides who the true recipient or recipients are.
As we've reported before, these legislative committees are where the bulk of the spending goes. Last year, about 64 percent of all lobbyists' spending went to committees instead of individual lawmakers.
Under the proposed bill, committees could still receive gifts, just not when the spending takes place outside of the capitol building.
Rowden said it's one of the bill's more important changes.
"One of the hits on our caucus is that we've had these pretty extravagant dinners at real nice restaurants," Rowden said. "And current law allows those to go to committees, so nobody's name is attached to it. I think because of that, people act differently than if their name was attached."
- Lawmakers would have "ethics training."
Four hours of ethics training would be required for all lawmakers every two years. It would also be required for the governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, state auditor, state treasurer, attorney general and executive department directors.
- No more trips paid for by lobbyists.
In the last decade, lobbyists spent $336,641 on travel and lodging expenses for lawmakers. Under the proposed bill, no more of that.
- The governor couldn't appoint a lawmaker to a post in exchange for their vote.
- Gubernatorial appointees can't give campaign cash to the governor.
In 2007, then-Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican, appointed Rudolph Farber to the Missouri State Highways and Transportation Commission. Farber also gave $50,000 to Blunt's campaign a couple of weeks before his appointment. Blunt defended his appointment, saying concerns were "partisan quibbling."
Some have criticized Rowden's bill as not going far enough. Secretary of State Jason Kander, a Democrat who has long called for sweeping ethics reform, has previously criticized the bill for not tackling campaign contributions (which have no limits in Missouri) and for allowing lobbyist gifts to continue in any form.
But he's since praised Rowden's bill, provided it's "not treated as the finish line."
The future of the bill is uncertain, although it's currently on the House calendar for debate. But with time left in session dwindling, its chances are diminishing.
"My hope this year is that it gets out of the House," Rowden said. "But it's something I plan to take on next year if we don't get it accomplished this year."
Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter: @csmcdaniel
*Note: Numbers concerning lobbyist gifts comes from Lobbying Missouri, a partnership with St. Louis Public Radio and NPR that tracks gifts lawmakers take from lobbyists. You can see how much your lawmaker has received, or download the data for yourself.