Cleaning up Missouri's money-grubbing political culture is hardly a priority for legislative leaders. Jason Kander, a Democratic House member from Kansas City, introduced two smart ethics reform bills this session, and neither has even been assigned to a committee.
In a best-case scenario, a unanimous Missouri Supreme Court ruling this week will bring the issue to the front burner. The court struck down ethics and campaign financing provisions signed into law two years ago because they violated a constitutional provision prohibiting lawmakers from taking on more than one issue in the same bill.
The legislature should have passed a clean, comprehensive bill in 2010 instead of settling for a few reforms tacked onto a purchasing bill. It has the chance to correct that mistake.
But in a worst-case scenario — which too often defines the legislature’s work these days — lawmakers will simply let matters lapse, and Missouri will lose the few significant reforms it gained in 2010.
The biggest step forward was a ban on transferring campaign donations among multiple committees so the public can’t trace the original donor. The legislation also required candidates for state offices to publicly report contributions of $500 or more within 48 hours of getting them. And it gave new powers to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
All of those protections are now gone.
Lawmakers and their operatives could now revert to the odious practice of hiding the source of campaign donations through legalized money laundering, knowing the ethics watchdogs are on a short leash.
Gov. Jay Nixon, who is often overly aloof from the legislative process, vowed to “communicate with the General Assembly” about measures he wants to see included in a strong new ethics bill.
That has to start with renewing the ban on committee-to-committee transfers. But lawmakers should do much more.
Missouri is one of only a few states with no ceiling on campaign contributions. It is the only state to allow lawmakers to accept both unlimited campaign donations and unlimited gifts from lobbyists. The legislature must set caps on both those pipelines.
It should also establish a reasonable waiting period before ex-lawmakers can move into lobbying jobs.
Missouri is picking up some unsavory distinctions. Weak laws make it a magnet for payday loan shops, dog-breeding operations and cigarette vendors. At the same time the state spends too little on education, and its public health outcomes are abysmal.
It is no coincidence that Missouri also has the nation’s weakest ethics and campaign finance laws. Good government can’t thrive when special interests are sucking up all the oxygen.
The Missouri legislature hasn’t accomplished much of late. Passing legislation to clean up its own act would be a significant achievement and lay the groundwork for better things to come.
Copyright Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.