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GUEST COMMENTARY: Missouri legislators flush with fancy gifts from lobbyists

Friday, March 28, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

Lobbyist gifts to Missouri legislators and other public officials surpassed $968,000 in 2013, according to Missouri Ethics Commission data.

That’s the total value of sports tickets, dinners, concert tickets, golf outings and the like showered on our elected state representatives by groups who are in the official business of seeking to influence legislation.

This figure encompasses personal gifts alone and does not include additional hundreds of thousands of dollars of campaign contributions, which are reported separately.

A quick scan through the list of more than 10,000 separately recorded lobbyist gifts in 2013 reveals some extraordinary expenditures.

Consider the House Utilities Committee, whose members racked up a $4,827.11 dinner bill at CC Broiler in Columbia on March 4 of last year, paid for by a lobbyist (that particular dinner bill set the record for the year, topping the $3,788.58 lobbyist dinner enjoyed by the same committee in Jefferson City the month before).

Why would a lobbyist sponsor a $5,000 dinner for a group of legislators who help oversee the rates that utilities are permitted to charge more than a million Missouri families? Check your next electricity bill, and you may find out.

Your elected representatives accepted more than $40,000 worth of Cardinals and Royals tickets in 2013, including tickets to the Cardinals’ playoffs and World Series games, according to the Ethics Commission reports. They also accepted more than $15,000 in Rams, Chiefs and Tigers football tickets, $8,200 in Tigers basketball tickets and $2,300 in Blues hockey tickets.

Over the past two years, your elected representatives accepted tens of thousands of dollars worth of concert tickets from lobbyists — including tickets for family members and staff — to see Lady Gaga, Bruno Mars, John Mayer, George Strait, Keith Urban, Taylor Swift, Bon Jovi, LL Cool J, Van Halen, New Edition and many other acts.

How these practices are consistent with every legislator’s sworn oath to “not knowingly receive, directly or indirectly, any money or other valuable thing for the performance or nonperformance of any act or duty pertaining to my office” is a question worth pondering.

The influence of lobbyists is clear to anyone who works at the state Capitol, and it is one of the most surprising things that I have discovered since I was elected to serve our community there a little over a year ago.

Lobbyists routinely draft bills and hand them to legislators to sponsor. Too often, the sponsoring legislator does not fully understand what is in the bill or what its ramifications are. These practices have become so routine that they are rarely even questioned.

A few weeks ago, a fellow House member took to the witness table at one of my House Committee hearings to explain one of his bills to our committee. When he was asked a basic question about the bill’s content, the legislator said that he did not know the answer, and he called forward a lobbyist from the back of the room to explain the content of the bill to the committee.

Evidently, the lobbyist had previously given the bill to the legislator to sponsor, and the legislator either had not read the bill or, at a minimum, had not understood it. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this episode, to me, was that nobody else in the room seemed to be surprised.

A review of the Missouri Ethics Commission reports shows that the lion’s share of lobbyist gifts comes from regulated industries and industries that receive state subsidies. Prominent among them are utilities, which set our electric rates; telecom companies, which set our phone rates; and metro area real estate developers, who receive tens of millions of dollars in annual tax subsidies.

When one considers that Missouri grants over $500 million in tax subsidies to private industry each year, the expenditure of a lowly $1 million to court legislators with steak dinners, sports tickets, concert tickets and golf outings seems a remarkably high-return investment for lobbyists and the industries that sponsor them.

As an elected representative of the community that I grew up in and love, I take my job very seriously. Nearly every day, I meet working families in my district who are worried about covering their monthly utility bills and the costs of their children’s college tuition.

I think about the emerging generation of Missouri kids who are doing their best to learn and grow through our public schools, and teachers who are doing their very best to teach them. I think about our unborn grandchildren, who will inherit the debts of our own less fiscally responsible generation. None of them have their own lobbyists.

With each passing day, I become increasingly frustrated to know that influential groups are using steak dinners and sports tickets to try to divert our limited public resources toward private gain.

That’s why I was pleased to be the first Missouri House member to sign the Missouri Gift-Ban Pledge last year. I am encouraging my colleagues to do the same. As of the date of this writing, only one other Missouri legislator has done so (Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton).

Your elected representatives are letting you down, and it’s time that we do something about it. The best step forward would be a comprehensive new ethics law that places strict limitations on lobbyist gifts. I, and several of my mid-Missouri colleagues, have been working to try to get this done.

Twelve other states have already passed effective zero-tolerance gift bans, and we should join them. The next best step, in the meantime, would be for each of us to call our own representative or senator and ask him or her to sign a no-gifts pledge.

I still believe that most of the participants in our political system are decent people. The industries and individuals who seek influence in the Capitol are not acting illegally; they are pursuing a profit motive under the rules of the game that exist today.

I am told, in fact, that many lobbyists would prefer statutory limits on lobbyist gifts because our current no-limits system has led the lobbyist community into an expensive “arms race” to seek legislators’ attention. By the same token, most of our representatives are well-meaning, but many have become lulled into complacency by the pervasiveness of modern gift practices and the associated bad habits that have set in.

It’s time for a wake-up call and a change in lobbyist gift practices. In the meantime, the people of my community elected me to represent them and their families — not to represent special interest groups — and that is exactly what I intend to continue to do.

State Rep. John Wright, D-Rocheport, represents the 47th District, which includes parts of Boone, Cooper, Howard and Randolph counties.

 


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Comments

Michael Williams March 28, 2014 | 10:58 a.m.

I agree with much of what was written in this missive. I'm also happy the gifts are reported and public.

But, I must ask Representative Wright this: If you are so concerned about big money in politics, how do you justify the big money YOU YOURSELF paid FROM YOUR OWN PERSONAL FUNDS for your OWN election....an amount that overwhelmed your opponent? Could you not sell yourself on your own merits from supporters? Is there not merit to the thought that you bought your own election? Given the posture of your missive, you need to defend your OWN actions. Don't you?

PS: Lobbyists are bad-mouthed, often for good reason. The "gifts" are one of those good reasons. However, consider this: Do you expect your gov't representatives to know and understand the intricacies of everything occurring in this state? Do you expect them to know about energy, or construction, or insurance, or ecology. Where do they GET this information?

Let's all remember: The energy industry has lobbyists. So does the Sierra Club.

(Report Comment)
Richard Saunders March 28, 2014 | 1:49 p.m.

C'mon, be brave!

Cut to the chase, and call it bribery, as it is a far more applicable label.

Good luck pursuing this without getting taken out by your own.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 29, 2014 | 6:45 a.m.

I agree with both Richard and Michael.

But why advocate half measures? Make it illegal to give or accept ANY gift of ANY value, including paying for lunch.

Federally, and in many states, it's illegal to sell or purchase certain designated "substances;" therefore, can we logically assume it will never happen?

Should laws be passed outlawing certain medical procedures? If they are, can we can rest assured those procedures won't occur?

Finally, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution was enacted, didn't human ingestion of alcohol drop to zero?

By now even the most doctrinaire Socialist might suspicion that we can more easily pass acres of laws governing human behavior than we can actually control human behavior.

[Not only is Smith a cantankerous old man and rampant capitalist, we now discover he's also a closet Libertarian. WHAT NEXT?]

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates March 29, 2014 | 12:33 p.m.

@Ellis: LOL... I took one of those online fun tests and found out I was a right-leaning Libertarian. The cantankerous old man and capitalist I already knew. May not mean much as I took another some time back and found out I was a lesbian...:-)

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 29, 2014 | 1:21 p.m.

Skip:

I wouldn't have guessed that. We just never know, do we?

You might want to consider moving to Iowa, presently the only Midwestern state where, in legal marriage, Adam may join with either Eve or Steve, and Eve has the choice of either Adam or Ellen.

Choice is good.

(Report Comment)
Skip Yates March 29, 2014 | 8:44 p.m.

Ellis: Didn't realize that many Californians had relocated to Iowa.....

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith March 30, 2014 | 1:45 a.m.

Good one, Skip.

Actually it's been just the opposite. Go to Southern California or South Texas and you may trip over retired Iowans. Florida? A good deal less.

In 1957 the Iowa Hawkeyes (Big 10) finally won a trip to the Rose Bowl. A very large crowd of Hawkeye fans showed up. A cost incentive was that you could stay, for free, with your retired relatives.

Hawkeyes won that game, with Kenny Ploen (pronounced "plane") the QB and MVP. Ken went on to win several Grey Cup titles in the CFL for the Winnipeg franchise.

(Report Comment)

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