JEFFERSON CITY — Currently serving his eighth and final year in the Missouri House of Representatives, Curt Dougherty said he has learned an ugly — but important — truth: It is hard to get your opinion recognized without a lobbyist.
"It's just the way it is down here," said Dougherty, D-Independence, referring to the influence of lobbying. Dougherty was recently a subject of a Kansas City Star column written by political columnist Steve Kraske. In it, Dougherty is quoted as telling a group of home inspectors who opposed a bill that their opinion wouldn't be heard effectively without aid from a lobbyist.
Dougherty stood by his comment when asked about it last week. And his point that lobbyists play an important role in informing the public was backed up by one of the most ardent supporters of lobbying reform.
Jim Bushart, a Cassville home inspector, came with eight others to Jefferson City on Jan. 14 to speak with Dougherty and other members of the House Special Standing Committee on Professional Registration and Licensing, acting as their own lobbyists. He wanted legislators to vote against a bill, introduced by Rep. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, which would create the first licensing standards for home inspectors. A bill similar to this one has failed the last two years.
Currently, Missouri does not require anyone conducting a home inspection to earn a state certification. Dougherty said he plans on supporting the bill for the first time this year, and Bushart said that's because the real estate agents' lobby, which supports the bill, got to him first.
"On Jan. 20, the Missouri Realtors took the House out to dinner; the next day the bill was heard. We can't compete with that," Bushart said. "What it basically tells me is that the voice of the individual is basically worthless."
Parson said Monday that he had heard very little from the Realtors' lobby this session. In addition, Dougherty said the meal, which the Association of Realtors said they hold every year, had no bearing on whether he decided to support the bill.
Dougherty said the meals and other giveaways act as a mechanism for lobbyists and industries to speak to lawmakers in a more relaxed setting, something that can be informational for both the lawmaker and special interest groups.
"If you think some free fried meatballs on a stick are going to get you anything in this town, you've got another (thing) coming," Dougherty said. "What lobbyists do with those is attract us to go so they can try and convince us to vote one way or another. The meals themselves mean nothing."
Dougherty said lobbyists are a constitutionally protected group that serves a purpose to inform legislators of things they may not have known before. When the other side, in this case the home inspectors, doesn't have as organized of a lobby, then their side can't be heard as effectively.
"I can't help that one side has a big lobbyist, and the other doesn't," Dougherty said. "Committee meetings are during the day, and it's a lot easier to have a lobbyist come in and speak to me and know what they're talking about, as opposed to driving four hours and sort of winging it."
Bushart did say that it was a major challenge for him to drive up from Barry County, parts of which are closer to Little Rock, Ark., than Jefferson City, just to speak with the legislators for a couple of hours.
Some legislators worry that the system, as it is now, gives a bad ethical impression. Rep. Rachel Bringer, D-Palmyra, said Missouri is the only state with no limits on individual campaign donations or lobbyist gifts and that leaves citizens feeling cynical about their government.
Bringer did agree with Dougherty that lobbyists serve a useful informational purpose, but she said the system has too many holes for unethical lawmakers to potentially walk through.
"We need to ensure a more thoughtful decision process for our state," said Bringer, who this session has sponsored a major ethics reform bill that would ban all donations from lobbyists to lawmakers. "I don't doubt that Curt and others do things the right way, but we need to make sure that everyone does."
Bringer added that, as a federal grand jury prepares to meet again on March 9 in Kansas City to investigate a possible pay-off that killed a 2005 anti-pornography bill, it is important for legislators to give their best impression and not let citizens think they are taking part in back-door deals.
Dougherty admitted he should have been less candid on Jan. 14, especially to a group of people he had never met before. But the fact, he said, still remains: Until the system is changed, the best organized and financed groups will often have a better chance of success because they can hire lobbyists.
"It's not about money; I also wish elections were publicly financed so we didn't have to take money from anyone," he said. "But as long as the system is how it is, then the most organized voices will be heard the most. That's just how it works down here."