JEFFERSON CITY — On a day two former legislators were due to appear in court and one day after another began his prison term, the 2010 Missouri General Assembly began with a call for ethics reform.
House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, announced the creation of a committee in the House to address ethics and governmental accountability. Richard said he was creating a new committee, chaired by Rep. Sally Faith, R-St. Charles, instead of using current committees to draw attention to the issue.
"I want to make sure you all and the state of Missouri can watch its progress," Richard said.
Addressing the Senate, President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, said, "We must strive for higher ethics standards because ethics violations are unacceptable."
Shields welcomed the body's newest senator, Joe Keaveny, D-St. Louis, but reminded the Senate of the reasons Keaveny's predecessor departed.
Former Sen. Jeff Smith, D-St. Louis, who held the seat during the last legislative session, began a prison term Tuesday in Kentucky for obstructing justice. Also in trouble with the law are two former members of the House: former House Speaker Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, who requested a new judge Wednesday in his assault trial, and former Rep. T.D. El-Amin, D-St. Louis County, who was sentenced Wednesday to 18 months in prison for bribery.
While both Richard and Shields promised that reforming ethics laws would be one of the first items brought to the floor, exactly what would be contained within the legislation was still in doubt Wednesday.
Shields has filed a bill that would ban lobbyist contributions during the legislative session, appoint an independent investigator to an ethics commission and require staff to file financial disclosure forms.
Shields' legislation is similar to a bill filed by House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, R-Perryville, which would ban all contributions from lobbyists. Tilley said he voluntarily stopped accepting gifts from lobbyists in July.
But Shields and Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, were not ready to ban all contributions outright.
Asked if allowing lobbyists to contribute at the conclusion of a session is just putting off a donation, Shields said that was "one perception" but that "we need to get past that perception."
Shields and Engler also said they were not in favor of Gov. Jay Nixon's proposal to limit contributions to legislators.
These limits should be included in any ethics legislation, said House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence.
"It can't be called comprehensive ethics reform unless you have some sort of campaign finance limits," LeVota said.
Engler said when Missouri had contribution limits, donors participated in a "shell game" that allowed the laundering of money through various campaign committees.
Nixon's proposal would eliminate the movement of money between committees, a move supported by Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence.
"Limits are a very good idea," Callahan said. "The problem is we need limits on everything."
The state's budget woes were another issue Shields said would be a main focus of the next legislative session.
"We are facing an ongoing budget crisis, and to succeed we must have a governor who will do his job and present a balanced budget that is not short-sighted," Shields said.
Shields, Engler and Callahan all said that ensuring continued funding for educational programs would be critical in the creation of the budget.
"This year, we must continue (a) commitment (to) make education a top budget priority," Shields said.
Shields said his third priority was to make long-term planning a part of this year's legislative process.
In a press conference following his address, Shields, who is term-limited after this year, said he wants to leave something with a lasting impact. Some Democrats, however, said they were reluctant to tie the hands of future legislators.