UPDATE: Missouri Senate OKs ethics bill; House files own plan

Thursday, March 4, 2010 | 9:02 p.m. CST

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri senators passed legislation Thursday strengthening the state's political ethics rules, while House members filed a proposal that would go even further.

The House bill would restore campaign contribution limits to $5,000 per election for all candidates. It also would ban lawmakers from working as political consultants and require a yearlong waiting period before they could become lobbyists.

Tougher ethics laws are among the session's priorities for legislative leaders and Gov. Jay Nixon. But the separate House and Senate bills show disagreements remain about what should be done to address a perceived distrust of Missouri's politicians.

Within the past year, three St. Louis Democrats quit the legislature after pleading guilty to federal felonies. A federal grand jury in Kansas City is also probing how legislation was handled by Republican former House Speaker Rod Jetton, who also operated a political consulting business during his time in the legislature.

One of the largest points of contention is whether Missouri should reinstate campaign donation limits, which were repealed in August 2008. That mid-election year change did away with donation limits of $1,350 for candidates to statewide offices, $625 for Senate candidates and $325 for House candidates.

Nixon and many Democratic lawmakers have said campaign finance limits need to be included in any serious ethics legislation. But they aren't in the bill that passed the Senate by a 31-0 vote Thursday.

Senate President Pro Tem Charlie Shields, that bill's sponsor, said campaign finance caps create an incentive for people to obscure their donations to get around the limits.

"We believe that contribution limits defeat transparency," said Shields, R-St. Joseph.

Under the Senate bill:

  • Lawmakers and legislative candidates would need to report within 48 hours campaign donations of more than $250 received during the legislative session. A similar reporting requirement would apply to statewide officials and candidates during the legislative session and when the governor is considering whether to veto bills.
  • The bipartisan six-member Missouri Ethics Commission could launch its own investigations into potential violations after an unanimous vote instead of only being allowed to act after complaints are filed.
  • Political committees would be prohibited from transferring money to other political committees, a provision intended to stop donors from obscuring the original source of the money.

The House legislation includes similar ideas.

For example, the House measure would allow the Ethics Commission to launch its own investigation but would only require four votes from board members. And candidates would need to report all campaign donations of more than $2,000 within 48 hours — even if the legislature isn't in session.

Currently, campaign donations of more than $5,000 must be reported within 48 hours.

The House bill also would prohibit lawmakers from accepting more than $1,000 annually in gifts from lobbyists.

The House legislation was filed Thursday, shortly before lawmakers left for a weeklong annual spring break. Lawmakers serving on a specially created committee worked for weeks to develop an ethics bill that could garner bipartisan support.

Rep. Kevin Wilson, chairman of the special ethics committee, is sponsoring the House proposal, and most members of his committee has signed on as co-sponsors. Wilson, R-Neosho, said the legislation would make Missouri government more transparent but that ultimately it would be up to individual public officials to behave better.

"I don't think you can ever force somebody to be more ethical," he said. "You can make the rules more transparent, you can make the rules tighter, you can make the rules fairer."

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