This story has been updated to include comments from state Rep. Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City.
COLUMBIA — Missouri elections are riddled with ethics violations, conflicts of interest and donations funneled through "sham nonprofits," House Democrats say, and they're not going to take it anymore.
Rep. Jake Hummel, D-St. Louis, was selected earlier this month as his party's new House leader. He said at a news conference Tuesday morning that "one of the highest priorities for the House Democratic caucus" is passing comprehensive ethics reform during the 2013 session of the Missouri General Assembly.
Rep. Kevin McManus, D-Kansas City, will sponsor the legislation, which will be filed in the coming weeks.
Hummel said after the news conference that his party had not yet reached out to Senate Democrats or Republicans in either chamber, but he hopes the bill will garner bipartisan support in both.
Both Democrats acknowledged they are planning ahead for the possibility that the General Assembly may not turn the bill into law this year. In that case, the lawmakers said, they will initiate a citizen petition to bring the reforms to a vote of the people.
McManus, referring to the Republican supermajorities in both the House and Senate, said that "to the extent we can't get it done this year, it's on their hands."
Democratic Rep. Chris Kelly of Columbia said he supports the proposal.
"It's better campaign limits and more transparency," Kelly said.
What would change
If the House Democrats have their way, 501(c)4 nonprofit organizations would be considered political action committees and therefore subject to a requirement that they disclose the identity of their donors. 501(c)4 organizations are similar to charitable 501(c)3 nonprofits, except that 501(c)4 groups can donate to political campaigns.
The proposed legislation also would amend current law "to make clear that intentionally obscuring the source of campaign contributions is a crime," a news release from the Democrats said.
Citing the investment of campaign funds in a local bank by former House Speaker Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, McManus said the Democrats' bill would allow campaign money to be invested only in interest-bearing checking or savings accounts.
Several other provisions in the bill are borrowed from an earlier attempt at similar reforms. These include:
- Granting more authority to the Missouri Ethics Commission to enforce and investigate possible ethics violations.
- Capping campaign contributions at $5,000 per donor per year for General Assembly and statewide races.
- Extending to two years the current one-year ban on legislators lobbying the General Assembly after leaving office and prohibiting them from working as paid political consultants while in office.
Recent history, immediate future
Much of the language in the 100-plus page bill is borrowed from 2010 legislation crafted by a special House committee established by then-House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin.
House Bill 2300 eventually passed but as "a substantially watered-down" version of its original form, according to a news release from the House Minority Caucus. This year, the Missouri Supreme Court deemed the legislation unconstitutional on procedural grounds, the release said.
Twice during the news conference, Hummel dropped the name of Republican Rep. Jay Barnes, of Jefferson City, as a likely ally in a bipartisan reform effort.
Speaking by phone Tuesday afternoon, Barnes said he is fully onboard with disclosure but wondered if his Democratic colleagues will let "perfect be the enemy of the good."
He said there is "universal agreement that there should be full public disclosure of who's giving money to political campaigns. ... Even the folks who are against campaign finance limits believe there ought to be full disclosure."
But Barnes expressed resistance to more broad-reaching reforms, such as limits to the amount of money donors could contribute to campaigns.
"I don't believe that caps could pass either body of the legislature. So, I'm not going to spin my wheels worrying about caps — whether I'm for or against them," Barnes said. "I'm only interested in what can get across the finish line."
Hummel said McManus does not intend to file the legislation just yet because Democrats want to allow time to gather as many co-sponsors as possible.
He said his fellow House Democrats are open to compromise — but only on the details. They are unwilling to sacrifice any of the bill's core elements.
"An all-encompassing piece of ethics reform should be just that," he said.
Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.