Lawmakers fail to ramp up ethics laws for Missouri officials

Written by Muleskinner Staff

By SUMMER BALLENTINE

(JEFFERSON CITY, Mo., AP) — Like most years, Missouri state lawmakers in the 2015 legislative session introduced a number of bills aimed at clamping down on ethics laws considered some of the loosest in the nation.
And like most years, despite months of discussions and assurances from legislative leaders who said this year would be different, plans fell apart in the last few weeks of session.
The breakdown of this year’s ethics proposals means Missouri for at least another year will remain the only state with the trio of unlimited campaign contributions, uncapped lobbyist gifts and no laws preventing lawmakers from leaving office and immediately becoming lobbyists. A bill passed by both chambers would have prevented lawmakers from entering lobbying right after leaving office in hopes of preventing legislators from using their position to later find a lucrative job, but senators and representatives couldn’t agree on a final version of the bill.
Lawmakers’ failure to pass ethics bills also comes as the Capitol is under increased scrutiny after the House ended the legislative session in scandal.
Work ground to a halt after former House Speaker John Diehl, of Town and Country, admitted to exchanging sexually suggestive text messages with a 19-year-old Capitol intern and resigned the last day of session May 15.
University of Missouri-St. Louis political scientist David Kimball said Diehl’s departure could add “more fuel to the fire, in terms of the public desire for some kind of change in behavior of the Legislature.”
“It’s kind of bad that here’s another challenge of an ethically challenged Legislature, and in all the mess here the Legislature couldn’t even pass some minimal ethics reforms,” Kimball said.
Republican Rep. Todd Richardson, of Poplar Bluff, was elected to replace Diehl as speaker. He has said he plans to ramp up the Legislature’s policies on interns and “focus on improving that public perception.”
Richardson said the House would again try to take up smaller, single-issue ethics measures and pass them early next session. That’s similar to the approach the House took this year, although the Senate focused on a single, large ethics bill that ultimately gained traction.
“It’s a bicameral legislature, and we have to move things through both chambers,” Richardson said. “We’ll be back working on ethics reform as one of the priorities early in session next year.”
The sticking point for the bill, Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard of Joplin said, was a $25 gift limit for lawmakers added to the bill by the House. Richard said some senators raised concerns that it could have spurred lobbyists to look for ways to continue lucrative gifting by skirting reporting laws, driving spending underground.
Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon, who previously said he would support a citizen-led ballot initiative, said at his post-session news conference that legislation “is the simplest, easiest, most cost-effective way to the right policy.” Nixon said he will “try to work folks to make some progress” next year.
The bills’ deaths are “not surprising,” said Brad Ketcher, a veteran Democratic strategist who has helped craft a proposed 2016 ballot measure to limit campaign contributions and address other ethics concerns,
“If citizens care about ethics in campaign finance reform,” Ketcher said, “they shouldn’t expect the Legislature to police themselves.”
Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, also said in January that she plans to push a proposed 2016 Missouri ballot initiative that would limit campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts to Missouri legislators and other executive officials — an attempt, she said, at “cleaning up the embarrassment that we have when it comes to ethics.”
Three proposed ballot initiatives addressing lawmaker ethics have been filed so far, including two that would limit campaign contributions.
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Associated Press writers David. A. Lieb and Marie French contributed to this report. Follow Summer Ballentine at https://twitter.com/esballentine