Missouri Senate gives first approval to ethics reform

Wednesday, February 24, 2010 | 9:27 p.m. CST; updated 10:03 p.m. CST, Wednesday, February 24, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — On the way to giving preliminary approval to an ethics reform bill Wednesday, the Missouri Senate rejected amendments that would have closed the so-called "revolving door" between leaving the legislature and lobbying, and also voted down proposals to limit individual and corporate campaign contributions.

Senate leaders acknowledged there is a long way to go, and a lot of reconciliation, before any ethics legislation becomes law. Sen. Jason Crowell, R-Cape Girardeau, introduced the amendment, which would have required a yearlong waiting period between leaving the state legislature and taking a lobbying or major state position. It was one of four amendments he introduced, all of which were rejected by Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who also introduced the initial ethics reform bill.

Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, who called for the objection of Crowell's amendments, said they were irrelevant to the modified bill Shields brought to the floor.

Shields said he removed a number of earlier provisions, including the ban on legislators contracting with each other for consulting services, because he wants to get a bill through the Senate before major reconciliation with the House.

He added that he chose to reject the validity of Crowell's amendments because he wanted to avoid bogging down ethics reform on what he called a "minor" provision.

"This (bill) is going to come back considerably larger than what it is now," Shields said. "We were going to lose an ethics bill which had meaningful reform and provisions over deciding what someone should or shouldn't do after they leave here."

Shields acknowledged that some of the amendments from Democrats will likely be included in the House's version of ethics reform, which is being drafted by the Special Standing Committee on Government Accountability and Ethics Reform. That committee's chairman, Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, said he expects a draft to be discussed next Monday.

But the rejection of the waiting period amendment irritated Crowell. He said he didn't understand why Shields and Engler would deny a vote on something that even they say will arise again in the coming weeks. Crowell added that he will support the legislation that comes from the Senate, but not enthusiastically.

"I believe that, on an ethics bill, there was a significant group of people who don't want to close the revolving door between the legislature and lobbying," he said. "But I still believe this bill is a step in the right direction. Could we have taken a bigger step? Absolutely."

Shields and Engler both said they don't want to be lobbyists in the future, though Shields, when asked on Wednesday, did not affirm or deny recent reports that he is a finalist to be the president of the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce after he leaves the state Senate next January. Under Crowell's amendment, Shields would be forbidden from taking that post until at least January 2012.

The Senate bill, as it reads now, would ban fund transfers between campaign committees and require all donations over $250 between January and May to be reported. The bill would also allow the state ethics commission, for the first time, to file its own complaints. Shields also said he would change the Senate rules to require all Senators and staffers to file income reports, which they currently are not required to do.

"Right now, as it is, the ethics commission is very restricted, and we modified that," Shields said. "There are some very good things in this bill, and a lot more to go."

The rejected amendments that Shields expects to see again include a proposal from Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, which would have limited individual campaign donations to $1,250 for a statewide race, $625 for a state Senate race, and half of the Senate total for House races. That is identical to the limits that were approved by the state's voters in 1994 and remained in effect until a 2006 state supreme court overturned them.

Shields said he opposes limits and the majority of the GOP-controlled Senate does too. He said campaigns have gotten significantly more expensive since he was elected in 1990, and that limits would actually make campaigns less transparent. Sen. Tim Green, D-St. Louis County, agreed.

"You're not going to take the money out of elections, no matter what you do," Green said. "All you're going to do is just make people have to move their money around."

Senate Minority Leader Victor Callahan, D-Independence, also introduced a bill which would have set a $40,000 cap on all state campaign contributions from one individual or corporation, which was also rejected on a voice vote.

Callahan, Crowell and Engler all said that Shields' goal of passing ethics reform before March 6 is highly unlikely, given both the impasses between the House and Senate and the fact that Wilson's House committee hasn't introduced a modified bill yet.

Engler also said that many of his fellow Republicans are very cool to the idea of any ethics reform at all, especially campaign contribution limits, which he said might be a non-starter in the Senate.

"I've got half my members saying, 'This is crazy, why are we bringing this up?'" Engler said. "I think that if we rallied, I think they'd vote no and shut it down altogether. If the House is insistent on a bunch of draconian changes, we'll probably hold it up. If they're reasonable, we can pass something."

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