JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – A recent poll released by the Missouri Liberty Project shows an overwhelming support by Missourians for ethics reform related to lobbying.
Current law allows unlimited campaign contributions and lobbyists gifts, and no cooling off period before legislators can become lobbyists after their terms expire. In 2013, reports showed one million dollars in lobbyist gifts.
“This pay-to-play culture distorts the political process at the expense of ordinary citizens,” said Josh Hawley, a constitutional litigator and President of Missouri Liberty Project.
“Missourians increasingly feel shut out of the political process, disenfranchised and disengaged,” Hawley said. “Lawmakers increasingly appear to have a closer relationship to professional lobbyists and pressure groups than to average citizens. The appearance of a quid pro quo culture in Jefferson City is undermining public trust. This culture must change.”
Democrat and Republican legislators in both chambers agree with Hawley.
“People are growing more and more cynical by the day simply because of the influence that lobbyists have in the legislature. I truly believe that if we want to restore confidence that we need to look at how lobbyists interact with elected officials. We need to go over entertainment gifts, concert tickets – because no one can deny that lobbyists give out tickets to elected officials to gain influence,” Senator Jamilah Nasheed, D-St. Louis, said.
Nasheed has sponsored SB555, which bans General Assembly members, staff, and family from accepting gifts of travel and entertainment tickets. The bill also creates campaign contribution limits. It is on the informal senate calendar for Senate perfection on Monday.
The poll found 72 percent of Missourians favor a ban on free tickets to sporting events and on lobbyist-paid excursions; and 81 percent want to limit the number of meals lawmakers can accept from lobbyists.
Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, has sponsored a HB1258, which is similar to SB55, which is also on the calendar for Monday, based on similar concerns.
“The biggest concern for me is the public perception. As a first term legislator, I remember what it is like being on the outside looking in. My perception of what reality may be and what is perceived may be different, but it doesn’t really matter because in this particular case, perception is reality. If we can do things like changing ethics laws to assure the general public that the process in Jefferson City is a good one then I think that is a good thing,” Rowden said.
HB1258 would also limit lobbyist’s gifts, as well as changing reporting requirements for campaign donations and preventing General Assembly members from becoming lobbyists for 2 years. The survey found that 80 percent favor making lawmakers wait several years after their retirement before becoming lobbyists themselves.
There is currently legislation sponsored by Senators Lamping, R-St. Louis, and Lager, R-Maryville, to create cooling off periods before members of the General Assembly become lobbyists. Representative Jill Schupp, D-St. Louis also has a similar ethics reform bill filed in the House.
Senators Lager and Sifton, D-Affton, have bills filed in the Senate that limit or ban lobbyists gifts. Representative Wright has HB2153 in the House which prohibits certain lobbyists expenditures more than $25 per day or $250 per year. HB2153 has been second read.
Secretary of State Jason Kander has historically campaigned and worked for ethics reform during his time in office as secretary of state and previously as a state representative.
“It is clearly an acknowledgement on both sides of the aisle that this is something that Missourians want,” said Kander spokeswoman Laura Swinford. “He’s really pleased to see that the conversation is happening in a bipartisan manner.”
Hawley said all of these activities are eroding the public trust in state government. The poll found a majority of Missouri voters do not believe their voice and their priorities matter with politicians in Jefferson City (51 percent).
“Meaningful ethics reform is vital to restoring public confidence in Missouri’s political system,” Hawley said.
“It is most definitely needed. People are becoming more cynical by the day and we can stop that. Getting an ethics reform/campaign finance bill is very much needed in these last three weeks.” Nasheed said.
Rowden believes that changes coming down the pipe are great, but not the end of the need for reform.
“I don’t think that this is the end of the line for ethics reform. There is some good stuff in this bill and I’m certain that when it comes up that we are going to get some bipartisan support. It’s not the end all and be all, but I think it is a really, really good start,” Rowden said.
Kander’s office agrees.
“As long as we don’t treat this as the finish line and ‘mission accomplished’, folks will realize that it is a continuing conversation. [Kander] is pretty hopeful that this is a sign of progress,” said Swinford.
The Wickers Group conducted the poll during the first week of March and surveyed 400 Missourians registered and likely to vote in the November 2014 election.
Rachael Herndon was the editor at The Missouri Times and also produced This Week in Missouri Politics, published Missouri Times Magazine, and co-hosted the #MoLeg podcast. She joined The Missouri Times in 2014, returning to political reporting after working as a campaign and legislative staffer.
Rachael studied at the University of Missouri – Columbia. She lives in Jefferson City with her husband, Brandon, and their two children.