JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Just moments after a lengthy senate debate on an ethics reform bill that ultimately resulted in multiple amendments and a tabling of the discussion, Sen. Rob Schaaf told reporters he was filing a 56-page amendment to the Missouri constitution to reform the state’s ethics laws.
“It’s been obvious to me for a long time that our government puts powerful special interests first, and the people of Missouri second,” Schaaf said. “It’s not that the people running our government had bad or selfish intentions. People run for office because they have ideas about how to make our state work better and tey want to put those ideas into practice. But as soon as they run for office they realize that they depend not just on the voters, but also on the special interest that fund political campaigns.”
Schaaf characterized corruption in less villainous terms than is often used during ethics debates. Schaaf said that money from lobbyists and special interests provided access to lawmakers for some individuals that the average voter would never enjoy, even if there is no distinct quid-pro-quo.
“Let’s say it’s dinner time,” Schaaf said. “You don’t really have the option to go home, you live hours away, and you just stay in Jefferson City during the session. If you want, you can buy or make dinner for yourself. Or you can accept an invitation from an industry group lobbyist to grab dinner and drinks with him and a few of your colleagues. He’ll pay, of course. You take the invitation. Everyone is doing it and you say to yourself ‘he may be paying, but I haven’t agreed to give him anything in return. I’m above that.’ What you don’t realize is that you will at least feel some goodwill toward the guy after he pays your way. Even if you don’t want to, some part of you will feel a need to reciprocate, if only by taking his call the next time he wants to talk to you about an issue.”
Schaaf’s bill is SJR 13, a massive piece of work that, if approved by Missouri lawmakers, would stand as one of the single largest changes to the state’s constitution in history. The resolution is a sweeping condemnation of a number of normalized practices among lawmakers.
Just some of the items in the resolution include:
-A three-year “cool off” period between a lawmaker’s end of service and the beginning of his work as a legislative lobbyist.
-Individual contribution limits of $500, $1,000 and $1,500 for candidates for the House, Senate or statewide office, respectively.
-Prohibits candidates and their committees from receiving more than 20 percent of their funding from a political party.
-Prohibits corporations, LLC’s, labor organizations, cooperative associations and mutual associations from making contributions or expenditures for any candidate or committee, and caps donations to political parties for such entities at $3,000 per election cycle.
-A $200 aggregate cap on lobbyist donations to candidates or committees.
The bill also lays out provisions banning lawmakers from voting in order to receive favorable consideration for government posts, a total ban on lobbyists gifts, and a ban on offering gifts for consideration on votes, among a wide number of other provisions.
Schaaf’s announcement came on the heels of a protracted debate on the senate floor about an ethics bill sponsored by Sen. Majority Leader, Ron Richard, R-Joplin. Richard’s bill quickly became bogged down by a number of amendments limiting individual contributions or committee-to-committee fund transfers, both of which Richard has said he doesn’t believe should be part of an ethics reform package.
Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and both sides of the Capitol have agreed on the need for ethics reform in the state, even if the specifics are not yet agreeable to a majority. House Speaker John Diehl, R-Town and Country, said he anticipated several ethics bills on the floor within the coming weeks. Rep. Jay Barnes, Chairman of the Government Oversight and Accountability committee, slogged through a lengthy committee hearing earlier this week where several ethics bills were heard. Barnes told reporters after that he’s focused on moving those pieces to the House floor for a vote.
Ethics reform has dominated conversations among lawmakers more than perhaps any recent year. After a widely publicized House committee hearing at a swanky country club, Diehl told reporters that no more committee hearings would take place outside of the Capitol, and that lobbyists and groups would no longer be providing food to committees inside the building, a common practice.
After several amendments were attempted and failed, the Senate tabled debate on Richard’s bill while members continue to privately negotiate. Schaaf expressed little optimism that broad ethics reform could pass through the legislature, and said he was working with several individuals and groups to formulate an initiative petition to place ethics reform similar to his SJR on the ballot in 2016.
Collin Reischman was the Managing Editor for The Missouri Times, and a graduate of Webster University with a Bachelor of Arts in Journalism.