Dark money debate turns into a question of honor on the Senate floor

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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – Honor.

That one single word, a simple term, affects everything in the Missouri Senate in their every action, thought, or emotion.

Ethics.

Another word, one that seems to go hand-in-hand with the first.

Having finally finished the budget late Thursday night, the Senate returned Friday morning to finally take up an ethics bill, a topic that has plagued the General Assembly for years now.

Ethics has been on everyone’s mind since before the November election when current Governor Eric Greitens ran on a campaign promising ethics reform in Jefferson City by getting rid of politics as usual and fighting against “corrupt career politicians.”

But recent events, particularly an attack on Sen. Rob Schaaf by A New Missouri, a nonprofit 501c4 seeking to promote the governor’s agenda, have wreaked emotional havoc in the Capitol’s chambers.

Each senator knew that Friday’s debate over Sen. Mike Kehoe’s SB 305, a bill seeking to put a cap on lobbyist gifts, would not be an easy one. And while it started in a fashion that surprised few, with sides being quickly drawn, the Senate showed their true colors as the battle was waged on the floor of the chamber.

Schaaf took little time to file an amendment, creating his “Dark Money Disclosure Act,” legislation he said was needed in order to put a ban on “dark money” without being disclosed.

“Secret money has become a major force in the state. Secret money was used in attempts to influence politics in the Missouri legislature this year,” Schaaf said. “It creates a risk of corruption… and is corrosive to our process. There should be no such influence as is occurring now by the executive branch trying to influence the legislative branch.”

But as Schaaf stood to champion the fight against dark money, he was quickly met by the other side’s champion, Sen. Bob Onder, who led the filibuster of the bill. Onder deftly countered each one of Schaaf’s movements throughout the day, arguing that his amendment was an attack on free speech and privacy, constantly on his toes to deflect each swing Schaaf took at pushing his agenda through.

“It’s a very fine day to defend liberty today,” Onder said, echoing words spoken by Schaaf earlier in the legislative session. “We’re talking about free speech. It’s my hope that when this gets to a vote, it will defend First Amendment rights, and treat everyone equally. Your bill would require disclosure from nonprofits, even if the primary purpose of that nonprofit is non-political.”

Onder argued that nonprofits like the NRA, Americans for Prosperity, PROMO, Missouri Farm Bureau, and Planned Parenthood would be affected Schaaf’s amendment.

“Even churches would be impacted,” Onder said, pointing out that the language exempted unions. “We’re talking about our most cherished and sacred right – our free speech. I really do not see that because one senator feels that a particular 501(c)(4)’s Facebook ads went over the line that we should inflict First Amendment restrictions on others.”

Sen. Jason Holsman said that any political activity should be treated the same, whether it’s for a 501(c)(4) or anyone else.

“Right now, the executive branch has set up a 501(c)(4)… and to me, that is a campaign,” Holsman said.

“Should we know who paid for the attacks? Yes or no,” Holsman asked Onder. “If they attacked the senator from the 34th, we should know?”

Onder said nonprofits should not be forced to disclose. Onder had quoted the George Orwell classic Animal Farm earlier in his argument, which Holsman turned against him by saying some 501 organizations are treated “more equal than others.”

While the debate over free speech and dark money continued for hours, the senators did not seem to move any closer to any form of compromise. But as the lines of contention seemed to only grow longer, something changed when Sen. Bob Dixon rose to speak.

Rather than revealing party lines, differences in opinion, or the inability to find common ground, the Senate’s mettle was proven when Dixon laid bare the emotions from his fellow statesmen.

His chosen topic?

Honor.

“I’ve heard the words dark money for as long as I can remember this session. Unfortunately, that has been the story of Missouri politics this session: dark money and dysfunction. It’s more than dark money. Despite all of its complexities, we live in a binary world. This is about darkness and light,” Dixon said. “There are two choices: life and death, darkness and light, on and off, right and wrong, open and closed. We debate complexities in this beautiful chamber, all of us men and women of honor. I know we’re all trying to make a good choice, and everyone has a different perspective as to what that is.”

Holsman, along with Sen. Bob Dixon, Sen. Doug Libla, Sen. Gary Romine, and Sen. Ryan Silvey, were apparently the targets of the next attacks from A New Missouri, per a Springfield News-Leader reportBut rather than cower, each of the senators seemed to welcome the attacks, Dixon said.

“I want to say, that with every fiber of my being, I am honored to be found on a list with those mentioned. Every single one. Why? Because they are senators,” Dixon roared, his defiance laid bare on his face. “Honored. Men and women of honor, what every single person is in this body.

Mr. President, I have tried to keep my mouth shut in the press in deference to the governor,” Dixon continued, telling the Senate how he had been taken back by a quote from Rep. Steve Cookson about Ronald Reagan’s 11th commandment, saying it warmed his heart.

“Republicans should not publicly attack fellow Republicans,” Cookson had said. “They can fight and slug it out in private meetings and caucus.”

Dixon said that he didn’t think that commandment was being used by all, particularly A New Missouri.

“I bet that’s where we find Reagan’s 11th commandment there – in the trash can. Austin Powers, Austin Chambers, whatever… I’m going to vote for the Blue Alert, for crying out loud. He’s preaching conservative principles while Ronald Reagan is in the trash can,” the senator from Greene County thundered, slamming his hands onto his desk. “Trashing him, trashing the Missouri Senate, systems of government and people of honor… leadership would’ve put an end to that a long time ago. The duty has fallen to the Missouri Senate, which is filled to the brim with men and women of honor.”

Despite all of the amendments filed and the hours of debate on the bill, the Senate ended up pulling the measure from the calendar. While pulling the bill off the floor, Kehoe took a moment to say that attacking senators is where the line is drawn, and that it is unacceptable.

“I do want to let the body know that I think attacks on fellow senators are way, way, way out of whack,” Kehoe said, receiving a chuckle from his fellow senators.

With just one week of the legislative session left, it’s hard to imagine a compromise can be found on that issue of dark money. Schaaf says it may fall on the voters of Missouri to handle it. But a common ground has been found elsewhere.

The Senate now knows that they can stand together when one of their own is attacked.

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