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Devil in the Details: Missouri lawmakers weigh ethics reform

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Leaders in both legislative chambers agree that there is a need for tighter restrictions on the cushy relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers that pervades state politics. But Missouri’s lawmakers must now begin reconciling the considerable differences between the cadre of bills dealing with ethics reform.

In the Senate, Majority Leader Ron Richard, R-Joplin, has Senate Bill 11, which he and Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, say will be the vehicle for ethics reform in the Senate. Richard told reporters earlier this week that while a few small changes may come, his bill is largely written as he’d like to see it.

Sen. Richard
Sen. Richard

Richard’s bill doesn’t impose campaign contribution limits, just one facet of ethics reform that has frequently divided lawmakers. The U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark ruling in Citizens United found that contributions to campaigns amounted to free speech, and Richard says he has no intention of violating that ruling.

Richard’s bill doesn’t go as far as its counterpart in the House – filed by Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, and backed by House Speaker John Diehl. Richard’s bill includes a 2-year “cooling off period” similar to Rowden’s, prohibiting lawmakers from becoming paid lobbyists in the Capitol for at least two years after completing their terms of service.

Richard’s bill broadens legal terms applied to lobbyists and elected officials to apply to school boards and superintendents as well, and his legislation flatly bars any lobbyist expenditures for out-of-state food, travel, lodging or entertainment.

Rowden — who has actually filed several ethics bills, some of which contain repeat provisions to increase the likelihood of passage — has legislation requiring additional reporting of donations and gifts exceeding $500 to any elected official during the legislative session and flatly banning any lawmaker from soliciting a position as a lobbyist before leaving office. Rowden’s bill also requires political donation disclosures from any gubernatorial appointee and prohibits any individual from accepting a gubernatorial appointment in exchange for an official vote.

Rowden and Richard’s bills highlight the distance between officials on precisely what ethics reform should look like. With some members, many of them Democrats, crying for strict campaign contribution limits while many are focused primarily on the “revolving door” between lobbyists and lawmakers, ethics reform could shape up to be one of the longest fights of the legislative session.

Rep. Rowden
Rep. Rowden

“I appreciate Senator Richard’s willingness to lead the ethics discussion in the Senate this year,” Rowden said. “I have met with him and his office several times and believe there is a path forward in both bodies to pass ethics reform. The strategy in the House is a little different than the Senate, which is to be expected, but I think the final product can be one that both bodies will endorse and support.”

U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill, in a radio appearance yesterday in which she dispelled rumors that she plans to run for Governor in 2016, told listeners that she planned on taking an active role in shaping ethics reform in Missouri, specifically identifying a lack of campaign contribution limits and the state’s largest political donor, Rex Sinquefield, as some of the woes plaguing Missouri.

Democrats must be at least slightly wary of painting Sinquefield as an abject villain. While the conservative mega-donor has largely supported Republican causes and candidates, the retired executive as donated to Democratic Attorney General Chris Koster to the tune of six figures. With Missouri’s local Democrats ready to christen Koster as the next big thing, both parties must walk a fine line in criticizing the ethical standards of the other.

Both chambers have vowed to make reform legislation a priority, with the Senate expected to hear Richard’s bill on the floor within weeks. But so long as pieces from each chamber remain stark in their differences, the finite details of any ethics reform headed to Gov. Jay Nixon’s desk my ultimately be decided in the hurried and arm-twisting conference committee process near the end of session.