Blame game begins in Missouri House as ethics reform appears dead

Wednesday, April 28, 2010 | 5:49 p.m. CDT; updated 8:27 a.m. CDT, Thursday, April 29, 2010

JEFFERSON CITY — After two days that sent ethics reform bouncing between two committees and onto the House calendar, Republican leaders declared the issue dead, and both sides pointed fingers at each other for letting the bill languish.

On Tuesday, 59 representatives filed to discharge the ethics reform bill from its original committee onto the House floor. This drew the ire of Majority Floor Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, who said he will refuse to let the bill be heard.

It was done in response to Monday night's move by the House Rules Committee to send the ethics reform bill back to the Ethics Reform Committee, said Rep. Terry Witte, D-Vandalia, who drafted the committee substitute of the bill as well as Tuesday's motion.

Prior to Monday's 7-4 vote along party lines, multiple Rules Committee members said they wanted ethics reform but not with the $5,000 cap on individual campaign donations attached.

"I don't think (the House) would ever support a bill with any limits at all," Rep. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, said Monday night. "As long as there are limits, it's not happening."

Fifty-six Democrats and three Republicans signed the measure, which circumvents the Rules Committee. According to the Missouri Constitution, a petition signed by at least 55 representatives has the power to move legislation directly onto the floor.

But Tilley, who controls what bills are brought up for debate, said he will refuse to hear the legislation because it circumvented the committee process.

"The Democrats didn't move it to the floor; they moved it to the graveyard," Tilley said. "It sets a horrible precedent to bring the bill up. If you went to a bill that got discharged, it would send a message that committees aren't worth anything."

Tilley also said some of the Democrats who signed on to the motion told him privately they did it to help kill the bill.

Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, who chaired the Ethics Reform Committee and helped produce a bill that was twice voted out unanimously, said he opposed the discharge motion. He said he had planned on having his committee meet Wednesday to discuss a substitute without limits on it.

"Now the whole thing is out of my hands," Wilson said. "Basically they've killed the bill, and I'm very disappointed."

Both Witte and Rep. John Burnett, D-Kansas City, who also serves on the Ethics Reform Committee, said it didn't make sense to pass a bill without limits. Both noted limits were enacted in 1996 with more than 70 percent of the vote until the legislature removed them two years ago.

Witte said the committee went to great lengths to be bipartisan and the whole point of the legislation was to be unanimous. He said Wilson was approached about signing the discharge but declined.

"To spend all this time working just for Rules to strip out the most important provision is not possible," Witte said. "If they wanted to move a bill without limits that would have been partisan, they could have done that in February."

Tilley said he was still hopeful that pieces of reform not related to donation limits could still be attached to bills moving through the House in the session's final two weeks. He hoped legislation could be amended that would include caps on lobbyists' donations to lawmakers.

Burnett said reform without limits wouldn't be effective, and he accused Tilley of using the discharge letter as a way to get out of hearing legislation he doesn't want. Burnett said the seven Republicans in the Rules Committee, including Tilley, could have sent the bill to the floor on Monday and refused.

"It's an incredibly phony excuse for them to blame the failure on us," Burnett said. "We had our first bipartisan shot at real ethics reform in the last 15 or 20 years, and we blew it."

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