Missouri legislators seek to tighten ethics rules

Wednesday, December 2, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 11:08 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 3, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — As state legislators began filing bills Tuesday, patterns emerged suggesting which issues will dominate the upcoming legislative session, with ethics being a main focus.

In the wake of resignations by three Missouri lawmakers who pleaded guilty to federal felony charges, two of the legislature's top leaders unveiled plans to tighten ethics rules in the Capitol.

Other prefiled legislation proposed:

  • A requirement that state government offices be handicap accessible
  • New abortion rules, including making coerced abortion a crime and prohibiting the use of public funds for some abortions
  • A constitutional amendment prohibiting forced participation in any health care system
  • Prosthetics be covered under health insurance
  • The creation of a registry of methamphetamine abusers
  • Sexually oriented businesses be prohibited within one thousand feet of a school, day care, house of worship, library, park, residence or other sexually oriented business
  • Greater access be allowed to the Capitol dome

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Both Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, and House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, said those cases created a perception of corruption at the Capitol.

"Their actions cast a cloud over the legislature this year," Shields said of the former lawmakers.

Shields said that, after the state budget, ethics would be the top issue for the upcoming legislative session, which begins Jan. 6.

Shields filed a bill Tuesday, the first day of eligibility for the upcoming legislative session, that would prohibit campaign contributions from lobbyists to incumbents during the legislative session. It would also establish an independent investigator within the Ethics Commission and require all employees of the General Assembly to report supplemental income more than $5,000.

Shields said he drafted the bill as a response to illegal actions of former Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, former Rep. Steve Brown, D-Clayton, and former Rep. T.D. El-Amin, D-St. Louis. They resigned their positions after being found guilty of violating federal law.

But some have already questioned the legality of Shields' ethics bill.

Sen. Tim Green, D-Spanish Lakes, sits with Shields on the Senate Rules, Joint Rules, Resolutions and Ethics Committee. Green said Shields' proposal to restrict some campaign contributions might violate the Constitution.

"You can't stop people from giving campaign money," Green said. "It's their constitutional right."

In fact, similar reservations have compromised the success of a bill before. Two years ago, the Missouri Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional a proposal to ban all campaign contributions during the legislative session.

Shields confirmed the questionable constitutionality of his measures could jeopardize the campaign contributions clause of his bill. 

"It could be stricken down," Shields said of the clause. However, he said, "When we bring this bill to the floor, I think you'll see lots of amendment ideas." 

Sen. Joan Bray, D-University City, said that although Shields' bill is strong in its other provisions, it comes up short of the ethics reform the state needs. Bray, like Green, sits on the Ethics Committee with Shields.

"You have to go after the appearance of 'pay-to-play,'" Bray said, referring to the perception that state government decisions are fueled by lobbyist money. "As long as the public feels people are buying campaigns, there won't be trust."

The issue of "pay-to-play" practices in government was addressed more directly by LeVota, who announced plans Tuesday to release his own ethics reform package for the coming session. 

The bill, LeVota said, will seek to reinstate limits on campaign contributions in the state.

"It doesn't make sense that someone running for state representative could get a contribution bigger than someone running for president of the United States," he said.

LeVota's proposal would also require a one-year waiting period before elected officials or staffers can become lobbyists, and prohibit campaign contributions by gubernatorial appointees.

Although LeVota said he thought Shields' bill could be improved by limiting campaign contributions, he said it would nonetheless move the legislature "in the right direction" towards a successful ethics reform.

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