Missouri lawmakers start overhaul of campaign ethics laws

Wednesday, January 20, 2010 | 3:19 p.m. CST; updated 11:04 a.m. CST, Wednesday, February 3, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — As lobbying groups offered free breakfast to lawmakers in the Capitol hallway, Missouri House members began discussions Wednesday changing ethics rules to restrict freebies and impose new limits on campaign donations.

Overhauling ethics rules became a priority for the 2010 session after several lawmakers pleaded guilty to or were charged with campaign finance corruption and other crimes last year.

House Minority Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, said changing ethics laws will "get rid of any type of question that we're down here not doing the right thing."

Members of both parties serving on the committee responsible for the overhaul agreed lawmakers must change the law to improve public perception — though there was no consensus Wednesday on how to do that. Still, the chairman, Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, pledged to pass a bipartisan bill out of the committee.

One bill, offered by House Majority Leader Steven Tilley, would prohibit lawmakers and officials elected to statewide office from accepting gifts and meals from lobbyists — unless they were offered to the entire House or Senate.

"I don't think anyone on this committee is going to change their vote for a $30 steak dinner, but it's gotten out of control," said Rep. James Morris, D-St. Louis.

Tilley, R-Perryville, also wants to prohibit lawmakers from working as political consultants while in office or for 180 days after leaving office. Until recently, Tilley was a client of former House Speaker Rod Jetton, who shut down his business after being charged with assaulting a woman. Jetton has pleaded not guilty.

Tilley also has received various gifts and meals from lobbyists.

"I come here as a sinner and not a saint," he said. "Just because we happen to serve in the General Assembly, I don't think we have a right to be doing that."

In an effort to prevent lawmakers from trading votes for gubernatorial appointments, Tilley's bill also would bar the governor from appointing legislators to posts until they have been out of office for 180 days.

"I think the time is right to take an in-depth look and really structurally change how things are done here," Tilley said.

Another bill, filed by LeVota, would reinstate campaign contribution limits at $2,000 for candidates for statewide office, $1,000 for state Senate candidates and $400 for state House candidates. It would punish candidates who violate those limits with fines of $1,000 plus the amount of the excess donation.

LeVota's bill also would ban contributions made from one political committee to another, an act some lawmakers say obscures who is giving money to a particular candidate.

In 2006, the Legislature voted to eliminate state caps on how much can be given to political campaigns and to bar political donations during the legislative session. The law was tossed out by the courts, which found the ban on fundraising during the session violated free-speech rights. In 2008, lawmakers again voted to repeal campaign donation limits.

While most of the proposed legislation would affect lobbying, only one lobbyist testified before the committee. Mike Reid of the Missouri Society of Governmental Consultants encouraged tougher restrictions on lawmakers' political consulting activities, such as penalties for soliciting clients while serving in the Legislature.

Reid said lobbyists don't mind possibly having to make more reports to the Missouri Ethics Commission.

"We in the lobbying community are in favor of as much reporting as possible," he said.

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