WHAT OTHERS SAY: Missouri lawmakers wined and dined by lobbyists

Tuesday, April 23, 2013 | 1:36 p.m. CDT

Around the Missouri Capitol, you'll often hear lawmakers deplore the citizen "takers" who ask for state services, such as Medicaid.

But those same legislators are remarkably insistent on taking perks for themselves.

Missouri is the only state that allows both unlimited campaign contributions and no restraints on lobbyist gifts. Lawmakers justify the taking of free meals, tickets to popular events and other lobbyist freebies by insisting that of course they can't be bought with a steak dinner. Besides, they rationalize, lobbyist gifts are public record, which keeps everybody on the straight and narrow.

Well, not exactly.

Republicans in charge of the General Assembly changed the rules early this session to allow for new "issue development" committees. A lobbyist who wants to influence lawmaking can now buy a meal for the committee without disclosing exactly who was wined and dined. It's another way for lawmakers to avoid having lobbyist gifts on record in their names.

For example, The Kansas City Star reported that, in February, lobbyists for Ameren Missouri and the Missouri One Call System treated Republican House leaders to $3,500 worth of dinners at a pricey Columbia steakhouse. The gifts were recorded with the Missouri Ethics Commission as going to the Leadership for Missouri Issue Development committee, not the individual lawmakers.

Issue development committees are just the latest vehicle that Missouri legislators have jumped aboard in an attempt to hide their greediness. Over the years they have devised any number of caucuses, committees and schemes enabling them to receive gifts without being named as the recipients.

Gov. Jay Nixon earlier this year called for comprehensive ethics reform, though his main focus was on limiting campaign contributions. If the legislature doesn't act, Nixon said, he'll support getting stronger ethics laws through an initiative petition.

It looks like that's where we're headed. With only a month left in the session, the legislature is consumed with an invented "scandal" about concealed carry records. The Senate is behind on crafting next year's budget. Important issues such as economic development and Medicaid expansion remain to be dealt with.

Lawmakers appear to have neither the time nor the will to tackle ethics reform. And besides, they're very busy partying with the lobbyists.

Copyright The Kansas City Star. Reprinted with permission.

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