COLUMBIA — Ethics reform was a hot topic in the state legislature last session. Now, debate on the issue has carried over into the election season.
The conversation started in part after three former state legislators pleaded guilty to ethics violations in federal court during the second half of 2009. Soon after, at the beginning of the legislative session in January, House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, announced the formation of a House committee to address ethics and government accountability.
Throughout the session, Republicans and Democrats were mostly divided on the ethics bills that came before the legislature. Republicans touted the bills as answers to calls for ethics reform, while Democrats labeled the bills as watered-down versions of the original calls for reform, especially when it came to limiting campaign contributions and gifts from lobbyists. Democrats wanted to see stricter limits than what made it onto the bill Nixon signed into law.
The ethics legislation that ultimately passed and that Gov. Jay Nixon signed into law this summer states the following:
- Campaign donations of more than $500 received during the legislative session must be reported within 48 hours.
- When the legislature isn't in session and the governor isn't considering whether to veto bills, political candidates still must follow the old law that contributions of more than $5,000 must be reported within 48 hours.
- The Missouri Ethics Commission has the power to launch its own investigations. Previously, it had to wait for a complaint in order to act.
The law also created stricter punishments for lobbyists who don't properly report spending and for people who obstruct ethics investigations.
The House approved an ethics reform bill that would have required voters to provide photo identification at polling places, but that provision was not included in the bill that was signed into law. Every House Democrat voted against that version of the bill.
Here is what candidates for the 21st, 23rd and 24th district House seats had to say about ethics:
Democratic candidate Kelly Schultz said the proposed requirement to show photo identification at the polls would not present a problem for a vast majority of voters. However, she said she wants to make sure populations aren't excluded, such as seniors who might not have access to valid identification.
Schultz pointed out that some of her former foster children had neither driver’s licenses nor the means to purchase another form of government-issued identification. A situation like this can turn people away from voting, she said.
Schultz also said true ethical reform cannot exist without limits on campaign contributions.
John Cauthorn, the Republican candidate from Mexico, Mo., said he was not familiar with the ethics reform bill, but offered his opinions on some of the elements within it.
He said he is not opposed to requiring voters to present identification at the polls. Because his own community is growing, he said, not everyone knows everyone else like they have in the past, and voter fraud could become a problem as a result.
Although Cauthorn was not aware of the new law that does not allow individual campaign contributions to exceed $20,000, he said he would support this rule.
Republican candidate Paul Szopa said he needed to “study up” on the ethics reform issues that were addressed by the state legislature last session, but that he is careful to do “everything in the letter and the spirit of the law.”
Szopa did say he was in favor of limiting the dollar amount that people are able to contribute to campaigns. As a candidate, he said, he doesn’t like soliciting for contributions.
“Our representatives should be held accountable to more than just the people who donate the most money,” Szopa said.
Last session, 23rd District incumbent Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, voted along party lines and against the ethics bill that ultimately passed in the House.
The House bill consisted of a range of provisions — which did not all make it into law — including mandating a state-issued photo identification to vote, requiring a secret ballot for union organizers and giving the lieutenant governor the power to sue on part of the state. The bill also prohibited a former legislator from becoming a lobbyist within two years of leaving office, and placed a $20,000 cap on individual campaign contributions for state and local races.
Webber was not necessarily opposed to every component of the bill but said he was disgusted with the fact that Democrats weren’t allowed to speak on the matter as the bill passed through the House, according to a previous Missourian report.
In the House, Webber cosponsored several ethics reform bills, including one that would change laws regarding campaign contributions and lobbying, one that would prohibit legislators from soliciting another member of the General Assembly for political campaigning, and a bill that would prohibit elected officials from acting as a lobbyist for at least one year after leaving office.
Fifth Ward Councilwoman Laura Nauser, who is running as a Republican, said she has mixed feelings about ethics reform legislation. She said that reporting requirements are more useful than caps on contribution.
“As long as there are disclosures of campaign contributions, there is transparency,” she said. “And I think that having a transparent process is more important than having contribution limits.”
She said that donations of $20,000 or more for a campaign make her uncomfortable, but she also believes that campaign finance is a First Amendment issue and that money is a form of protected speech; however, she also said spending on political campaigns is out of control, and she chose to fund most of her campaign without actively soliciting donations.
Nauser also said campaign finance rules can be ineffective, because dishonest candidates can find short-run loopholes in the system.
“There isn’t an ethics rule out there that would prevent candidates from having their votes bought or sold if they had that specific intent,” Nauser said. “There should be very stiff consequences for any corrupt elected officials.”
Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, said the ethics reform bill that was passed in the previous legislative session is almost entirely inadequate. He said the biggest problem is the lack of campaign contribution limits.
“It was barely better than the previous law,” he said. “It was more of an excuse to pass an ethics bill than anything else.”
Kelly said in the short run, he doesn’t think more extensive ethic reforms could be passed because of the partisan nature of the issue.
“It just goes to show that people work together and pass some very good legislation, and when they don’t, we often get very bad results,” he said.