Despite big talk in January, ethics legislation might be stalled

Wednesday, April 14, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT

JEFFERSON CITY — With three former Missouri House members convicted of felony crimes and a former House speaker under a federal grand jury investigation, legislative leaders and the governor had made ethics a top priority for the session. But even though a House committee passed an amended ethics bill Tuesday, some reform sponsors say the bill faces an uncertain future going forward.

The House Ethics Committee expanded a Senate-passed bill on campaign finance to include a $1,000-per-year restriction on how much a lobbyist can give to a legislator. The House committee also added a one-year ban on lobbying after a legislator or statewide elected official leaves office.

In addition, the committee tacked on a limit for how much any one person can contribute to a candidate — an issue rejected by senators and by the chamber's leader, Speaker Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, who sponsored the Senate bill.

Nixon's suggestions

Gov. Jay Nixon proposed four major areas for change in the oversight of state public officials. Some have run into far more opposition than others, but with less than five weeks left in the session, there is a growing sense of urgency to get a bill on Nixon's desk.

The governor's proposals include requiring legislators to wait at least one year after the end of their term before they can become lobbyists, preventing legislators from contracting as political consultants while in office and preventing campaign committees from donating to another.

Saying "it's the right thing to do," Nixon urged the General Assembly in January to implement campaign limits similar to the ones enacted by voters in 1996 and struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2007.

That proposal has been the most divisive to this point, with the Senate rejecting motions to implement them.

House-Senate differences

Although the House committee approved contribution restrictions, four Republicans on the committee have said they don't support limits, and Chairman Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, said there will likely be more opposition on the House floor and in the Senate, whose bill didn't include limits.

"I had no delusions from day one about how slow this process would be with all the strong opinions out there," said Wilson, who supports limits. "You get a huge bill like this to the House floor, and it's a grab bag."

Both Wilson and Vice-Chairwoman Sally Faith, R-St. Charles, said they believe a bill will pass, but he acknowledged that with less than five weeks in the session, the measure still has major hurdles to overcome.

"We're just going to have to see what happens," he said. "Four weeks is an eternity in the General Assembly, but I honestly couldn't tell you what's going to happen now."

While the Senate bill does not have limits on contributions, it contains provisions not included in the House committee version that would ban campaign committee-to-committee transfers. Both versions would allow the state Ethics Commission to initiate investigations. Currently, an outside complaint must be filed before it can act.

Before the bill gets to the House floor, it needs to get through the House Rules committee. Wilson said he hadn't been given a time frame for when his bill would be heard, and the Rules Committee chairman said he would not give it special treatment.

"Everyone thinks their bill is important," said Rep. Mike Parson, R-Bolivar. "In my position, it's important to not choose one over the other."

Pushing limits

Wilson said the largest battle will be over campaign contribution limits. Now, the bill would set limits at more than double the limit for federal elections — $5,000 from a person to a candidate.

"It doesn't really matter what the level of limit is, there's two ways you can go," said Faith, who opposes limits but voted for the bill in committee and said she will again on the floor. "Either you're for them, or you're against them."

Faith said limits decrease transparency because politicians will find loopholes to get the same money they have always gotten, only serving to create a jumble of money transfers.

During floor debate, the Senate shot down proposals to implement donation limits and the ban on immediately retiring legislators immediately becoming lobbyists. Shields said those are provisions his chamber probably wouldn't support in discussions between the House and Senate.

"I don't think anything is explicitly off the table, but the Senate made it clear that they didn't like some potential changes," Shields said, citing contribution limits specifically. "I also don't want to pass a bad bill or a hollow one and just call it a day. If we're going to do something like this, it would be nice for it to have clear support of both bodies."

Representatives on the House committee said they expected to see further changes to the House version, with some saying limits had a minimal at best chance of being in the final bill.

"There is obviously a split in opinion between what we want and what (the Senate) wants," said Rep. John Burnett, D-Kansas City. "It's going to have to be a give-and-take; otherwise there's not going to be a bill."

Rep. Terry Witte, D-Vandalia, said the odds favor the Senate in getting what they want during conference because one Senator effectively can kill any legislation by filibustering it during floor debate.

"It only takes one or two Senators to hold up debate if they don't like contribution limits or something else, and that could mean no bill at all," Witte said. "So I highly doubt that at least some of what we in the House want will make it through the process."


Wilson said previously he would rather have no bill than one that was "watered-down" like the Senate bill. But he emphasized Tuesday that the House is open to compromise, and he hoped the Senate would be too.

"We have to adapt," Wilson said. "The greater General Assembly is probably not as on page with what (the committee is) doing, so we know we'll probably see some changes."

In the Senate, Shields said he didn't want any single provision to kill reform, but with time dwindling, some representatives expressed fear that there will be no new legislation. Just as worrisome for Nixon and the General Assembly may be the possibility that legislators lose interest in reform.

"I've got half my members saying, 'this is crazy, why are we bringing this up?'" Senate Majority Leader Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said in March. "I think that if we rallied, I think they'd vote no and shut it down altogether."

Even if a reform doesn't make it to Nixon's desk, Wilson said it won't have been a waste of time. He said the committee was very bipartisan, something multiple members agreed with and that it at least began a conversation about how to close what he called some gaping holes in the state's ethics and finance laws.

But Faith said they have worked too hard and long to not see something get finished, no matter what roadblocks are ahead.

"We've started this process, we've gotten so far," she said. "At this point, we need to complete it."

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Sue Nelson April 14, 2010 | 11:02 a.m.

That's big talk for Mr. Parson. Why does he think those lobbyists keep giving him $25,000 at a time?

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