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WHAT OTHERS SAY: Party leaders favor ethics reform, so what is the holdup?

Tuesday, May 8, 2012 | 1:20 p.m. CDT

If a tree is felled in the forest to create the paper upon which a politician's ethics proposal is printed, does it make a noise?

The question arises because last week, Republican Dave Spence, a candidate for Missouri governor, unveiled a comprehensive proposal to change ethics laws to protect citizens from official corruption. It didn't get much attention.

It should and here's why:

The proposal doesn't contain a single bad idea. It mirrors many ideas that have been put forward by Democrats this legislative session and have been ignored by the legislature's Republican leaders.

Now, as we head to the governor's race in November, both presumed candidates, Gov. Jay Nixon, a Democrat, and Spence, a Republican, are saying the same thing: The state's anti-corruption laws are too weak. The negative influence of money is damaging the legislative process.

There are reasons to be suspicious of Spence's calls for transparency, not the least of which is that when given a chance to show it himself in his personal financial disclosure, he left out details that would actually tell voters where his potential conflicts lie. And unlike Nixon, Spence is not calling for one of the most important reforms, campaign donation limits.

It's hard to seek limits when you wrote yourself a $2 million check.

That being said, Spence's proposal is serious. Among the important changes he suggests making to state law:

• Capping lobbyists' gifts to lawmakers.

• Stopping lawmakers from cashing in on their next careers as lobbyists by requiring elected officials to wait two years before seeking to influence their former colleagues.

• Requiring any company seeking state bids to disclose its campaign contributions over the previous three years and banning such donations during the bidding process. This mirrors a proposal made by President Barack Obama on the federal level that has been opposed by Republicans.

• Reinstating the ban on committee-to-committee donation transfers that was a key part of the since-overturned 2010 ethics law. This move is key to ending the common practice of "money laundering" in Missouri politics.

• Requiring full disclosure of donors to the now copious 501(c)4 organizations that have become such a massive part of political spending in Missouri and the nation.

• Making it illegal to invest campaign funds in speculative investments, as Speaker of the House Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, has done, much to the chagrin of members of his own caucus.

These are serious, workable proposals. Combined with the ethics proposals put forward by House Democrats Jason Kander and Tishaura Jones, they would remove Missouri's stigma as the state with the weakest legislative ethics rules in the country.

It's a shame that those proposals have been ignored by Republicans leading the legislature. It's not like they've accomplished much else.

Spence's decision to back an ethics plan, while too late to matter this session, should put lawmakers on notice.

When leaders in both parties are pushing ethics reform, it's time for elected officials to get their act together and enact reasonable laws to limit the corrupting influence of money.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.


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