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For some, Missouri lawmakers' ethics push still has a long way to go

Sen. David Pearce answers questions from reporters on the last day of the legislative session.
Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Sen. David Pearce answers questions from reporters on the last day of the legislative session.

If there’s one constant about the last week of the Missouri General Assembly’s session, it’s that nobody in the Capitol has to search very hard to find delicious pie.

For several decades, senators have served up rhubarb pies, French silk pies, and even gooseberry pies to hungry legislators and staff. The uncontroversial and widely celebrated “Pie Day” event provides a big boost to proprietors like the Rolling Pin in Glasgow, and a bit of levity within the General Assembly's intense final days.

But these types of lobbyist-paid shindigs (and, more specifically, how lobbyists pay for lawmakers’ individual meals) have received more scrutiny than usual this year. Some lawmakers sought to ban lobbyist freebies as a way to clean up Jefferson City’s atmosphere.

But state Sen. David Pearce (who, for all intents and purposes, is piemaster of Pie Day) says the focus of this year’s ethics push is misplaced. He has a hard time getting worked up about the food lobbyists buy when legislators didn’t seriously consider capping campaign contributions.

“What we’ve passed with ethics reform is meaningless. It’s not worth the paper it’s printed on,” said Sen. David Pearce, R-Warrensburg. “I mean, we’re more concerned about if a lobbyist buys me a $40 lunch, but that same lobbyist can give me a $1 million to my campaign. So that shows how out of balance our discussion is.”

After high-profile scandals rocked the Missouri State Capitol last year (and part of this year), lawmakers made reconfiguring the state’s ethics laws a big priority. Now that the legislative session is over, there’s been some progress – but also some shortcomings. Some lawmakers like Pearce wonder if what was passed will make much of a difference – or if laws can stop lawmakers from acting inappropriately.

And others feel lawmakers still need to do a lot more when they return to Jefferson City next year.

“Yes, they made some steps this year,” said Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon. “But let’s not dislocate our arms by patting ourselves too much on the back for this effort. There’s more to be done.”

Missouri Speaker of the House Todd Richardson speaks to state representatives last week in Jefferson City on May 13, 2016.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri Speaker of the House Todd Richardson speaks to state representatives last week in Jefferson City.

Progress, but not perfection

You could say that the legislature’s battered image is one of the reasons Todd Richardson became House speaker earlier than expected. The Poplar Bluff Republican took on his role after his predecessor, John Diehl, resigned amid a sex scandal. In addition to pushing for changes to the House’s intern program, Richardson declared early on in his tenure that passing ethics-related laws would be foremost on the House’s agenda.

“I think for too long we’ve talked about ethics reform and not actually gotten anything done,” Richardson said before the 2015 session started. “And I want to have a very intentional strategy very early in session to make sure that we put the legislature in a position to actually deliver substantive, meaningful ethics reform to the governor’s desk. “

The “intentional strategy” involved sending changes through single-subject bills, as opposed to stuffing them all into one piece of legislation. It's the type of tactic that caused a handful of ethics-related bills to make it Nixon’s desk, including:

  • A six-month waiting period before lawmakers could become lobbyists.
  • Restrictions on how legislators-turned-lobbyists can use their unused campaign funds.
  • A prohibition on lawmakers doing paid political consulting work for fellow legislators (which, by the way, was an issue that cropped up nearly a decade ago).

“What I said from the beginning of session that I wanted substantive, meaningful ethics reform – and that I was not going to get caught up in the perfect being the enemy of the good,” Richardson said last week. “So yes, I’m disappointed that we weren’t able to do more. But I’m also proud of what we were able to do. You forget that we’ve gone a long time without passing an ethics bill.”
Too little?

Indeed, some legislators were disappointed that Nixon didn’t get a longer cooling-off period before lawmakers can start lobbying. Others weren’t happy that a lobbyist gift ban didn’t make it to the finish line. Both of those ideas ran into substantial opposition in the Missouri Senate.

“It is a little bit surprising to me, because I thought that the House did a much better job in passing some ethics bills that were more serious and more realistic – and weren’t just to be able to say ‘here’s a headline about ethics,’” said Sen. Jill Schupp, D-Creve Coeur. “But once against I will say, until we get back to the real, underlying problem of unlimited campaign contributions and the ability of big donors to hide who they are by using 501(c)(4s), until we attack those issues, we really haven’t done ethics reform in the state of Missouri.”

Curtailing the size of campaign contributions was also going to be a steep challenge in the Republican-controlled Missouri General Assembly. And when asked to respond to contentions that the ethics push didn’t go far enough, Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard replied: “That’s some of the comments that you in the press have made too – that whatever we do isn’t good enough, doesn’t go far enough.”

“And you know, you can only do what you can get 18 votes on,” said Richard, referring to how many votes are needed to pass a bill in the Senate. "When you have partnership [between the House and the Senate] up front that we could pass something together as a start or a beginning... That's not the end of it. I think it's a beginning."

Gov. Jay Nixon holds a news conference in his office following the end of the legislative session last week.
Credit Carolina Hidalgo | St. Louis Public Radio
Gov. Jay Nixon holds a press conference in his office following the end of the legislative session last week.

To the people?

Even though the legislative session is over, the discussion over ethics may extend into the November election. That’s because Missouri voters could soon decide on a constitutional amendment capping campaign contributions. Conservative activist Fred Sauer spent roughly $1 million to get that measure on the ballot. And if it has enough signatures (and survives a possible court challenge), even Republicans agree that it would have a good chance of passing.

“We need to get some friction in the system,” Nixon said when asked about the initiative last week. “Having these unlimited contributions flying all over the place is not good. And I certainly support the concept of having limits. And I’m hopeful after I review this measure that it’s something I can get behind, because I think getting limits back on in our state’s important.”

But Sauer’s proposal does not cap contributions for municipal or county candidates. Todd Jones, an attorney who’s working with the ballot initiative, said including those types of candidates would probably require amending a different part of the Missouri Constitution.

“Now somebody else can come around and do that – and we would be in favor of limits,” Jones said in a telephone interview. “But it just didn’t fit in.”

There are two reasons why the lack of limits for municipal and county candidates could matter if Sauer's amendment passes. The first is that it would create a system that allows donors to infuse huge amounts of money in competitive races for, say, St. Louis mayor or St. Louis County executive. The second? It’s somewhat unclear at this point if somebody could create a campaign account for a municipal or county office, raise an unlimited amount of money and then switch the committee to a state-based race.

Jones said the amendment's restrictions on committee-to-committee transfers should prevent that aforementioned scenario from occurring. Missouri Ethics Commission executive director James Klahr said there was a short advisory written on that subject back about a decade. It read that the “action of changing office sought subjected individuals to the contribution limits to the new office sought.” Therefore, Klahr said, contributions received above the limits for the new office would have to be returned.

Both Klahr and Ethics Commission attorney Liz Ziegler said this question would likely have to be revisited if Sauer’s amendment passes.

“We would probably anticipate that we would get new and fresh requests for opinions on the new language, assuming it survives challenges and actually becomes the law of the land,” Klahr said. “I would imagine that people would not feel that comfortable relying on a short, three-paragraph opinion from 2006. My guess is they would want some clarity from a current commission and current staff.”

While she’s a big supporter of campaign contribution limits, Schupp said the lack of donation limits for county or municipal offices could present some problems.

“The one thing that we’ve learned over time is if there’s a way to get around the law of limiting campaign contributions and/or hiding who the donors are or where the money’s coming from – people will find it,” Schupp said. “I do think that if the public gets to vote on campaign contribution limits as a constitutional amendment, should that pass, what it will do is send a message to the legislators that you need to change this.”

If Sauer’s initiative ends up passing, state Rep. Jeremy LaFaver, D-Kansas City, said lawmakers should move to cap contributions to municipal and county campaigns as well. But that's not going to stop him from supporting the measure if it makes the ballot.

“When it comes to something this important, we can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good,” LaFaver said.

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

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