Missouri lawmakers, after another resignation in disgrace, decide once again that they don’t need no stinkin’ ethics reform

Promises to implement some semblance of ethics reform have stalled once again in the Missouri General Assembly.

That shouldn’t come as a surprise.

I remember sitting in a Crossroads coffee shop with then-state Rep. Jason Kander a few years back and listening to him explain to me how hard it was for the Kansas City Democrat to push basic ethics reform measures — for instance, a cap on the amount of money individuals and corporations can donate to political campaigns.

In Kansas, those caps are pretty low — and Sunflower State lawmakers still find ways to enrich themselves through their office and their campaigns, kicking money around in ways that boggle the mind. (See Lt. Gov. Jeff Colyer’s mysterious half-million-dollar loans to Gov. Sam Brownback’s re-election campaign, which somehow got repaid in short order.)

What makes this year different is that it was Republicans talking big about ethics reform as the legislative session began. The Republicans already run the show in Jefferson City; Democrats in the legislative chambers are even weaker these days than they were when Kander, now Missouri Secretary of State, held a seat in the House.

The GOP bluster can be traced to two elements: First, there isn’t a ton of work to be done in Jefferson City this year. Second, and more important, the memory of last year’s ugliness remains fresh throughout the state. Recall that Sen. Paul LeVota and House Speaker John Diehl resigned their offices amid sex scandals involving legislative interns. There was plenty of impetus for restoring some dignity to the Missouri capitol.

Plenty of impetus, less will to act — even after Rep. Don Gosen had to give up his seat after word emerged that the married Republican had carried on at least one affair. And independent sources have told The Pitch that some of Gosen’s trysts occurred in the statehouse building.

So the state of ethics in Missouri remains comically grim.

New ethics laws weren’t necessariliy going to keep the trousers zipped on horny lawmakers. But restricting the largesse in Jefferson City might at least have cut down on the sense of entitlement felt by the people who roam the halls of the statehouse, some of them fuzzy on just whom they’ve been elected to serve.

How to define “entitlement” in this case? One way comes courtesy of Sen. Ed Emery, a Vernon County Republican, who recently explained why lobbyists (and all the free meals and gifts they lavish on politicians) are so essential to him.

“Well, frankly, I look upon lobbyists as unpaid staff,” Emery said during a Senate proceeding. “The taxpayer doesn’t have to pay them anything, and they do everything I ask them to do on my behalf. If I need information, if I need a study, if I need research done, I call up a lobbyist and they do the research. They bring me the data. As a result, I can do with a lot less staff work because they are a resource.”

Lobbyists aren’t public servants, however, and their “research” and “data” have been compiled with partial intent. If Emery, who serves on the powerful Ways and Means Committee, calls a lobbyist paid by anti-income-tax crusader Rex Sinquefield to analyze how states fare if they cut corporate income taxes, what’s the research going to look like? It is the lobbyist’s job to influence legislation. And if Emery is typical of Missouri legislators, the Show-Me State is a great place for a lobbyist to do that job.

One path to that sweet gig has long been to first hold elected office, and among the many ethics issues in Jefferson City is that lawmakers who are drafting legislation one day get paid by outside interests as lobbyists when they leave office. One reform under consideration calls for a one-year “cooling–off” period between when a representative or a senator leaves office and when he or she can begin lobbying.

But that rule wouldn’t apply to current lawmakers, only those elected this November and beyond. It’s almost as though some legislators in Jefferson City have their eyes on lobbying positions later this year.

Meanwhile, the Missouri Senate continues its fight against basic accountability. The advocacy group Progress Missouri wants Senate proceedings to be videotaped. The Senate objects to that idea. Both sides argued before the Missouri Supreme Court two weeks ago. Progress Missouri cites the First Amendment in its call for the Senate’s committee meetings to be made available to the public. Committee meetings are where the real public action takes place. By the time most bills reach the floor, the decision has already been made.

The Missouri Senate has countered that it wants to keep the lens cap on. Why? Decorum, senators say.
Decorum in Jefferson City? That’s a good one.

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