WHAT OTHERS SAY: Missourians support ethics reform. Why won't the legislature act?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014 | 12:29 p.m. CDT

Occasionally, we wish we weren't so prescient. Last December, for example, as the 2014 legislative session was getting ready to start, we said this about the prospects of meaningful ethics reform being passed:

"It's hard to believe that lawmakers who benefit from sleazy ethics and campaign finance laws can summon the integrity to enact serious reform. Ultimately, voters probably will have to do it for them by passing a ballot measure."

You rarely lose any money betting against good government in the legislature.

Despite many sincere and meaningful bills from both Democrats and Republicans being filed to reduce the pernicious influence of money in the legislative process, legislation to undo Missouri's status as the only state in the nation with no limits on either lobbyist gifts or campaign donations appears stuck in mud.

A Senate debate ... over a proposal from Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, intended to reduce lobbyist gifts and end the revolving door between lawmaking and lobbying, gave a strong indication that state lawmakers just don't have the courage to police themselves.

Some still want their free lunches and dinners. Others, like Mr. Lager, want to continue collecting six-figure checks from mostly anonymous donors. Some, knowing their time in the legislature is almost up, don't want to give up the possibility of sliding into a lobbyist gig or a gubernatorial appointment.

The sweet lure of quick cash is hard to ignore.

Here's what should also be hard for those reticent lawmakers to ignore: Missourians want ethics reform. Badly.

A new poll conducted by The Wickers Group on behalf of the Missouri Liberty Project shows broad-based support, among Democrats, Republicans and independents, for serious ethics reform in the Show-Me State.

The poll, conducted in March among likely general election voters, found that between 70 and 80 percent of likely voters supported five different elements of ethics reform:

  • Banning free tickets from lobbyists for professional or college sporting events, hunting and fishing trips and golf outings.
  • Limiting the number of meals lawmakers can accept from lobbyists.
  • Barring lawmakers' staff from working as paid political consultants.
  • Requiring lawmakers to wait several years after retiring before becoming lobbyists.
  • Creating a new unit in the attorney general's office to fight abuse and corruption in state government.

In each question, the support was highest among Democrats, but similarly high among both Republicans and independents.

A huge majority of Missourians support ethics reform. It ought to scare lawmakers unwilling to deal with the problem themselves; if a private group like the Missouri Liberty Project is willing to spend money polling on the issue, it's an indication that ethics reform will be eventually coming to a Missouri ballot.

Keep in mind, the Liberty Project is run by Josh Hawley, a conservative MU law professor who is involved in the Hobby Lobby lawsuit against contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act.

We don't agree with him much. And we would point out that in using a 502-c-4 to obscure his organization's funding (he would not tell us who funds the Missouri Liberty Project), he is part of the greater problem in national politics.

Dark money is allowing a select rich few to control the nation's political system with little to no transparency. But that doesn't mean he's wrong on ethics.

He rightly, if ironically, points out that as lawmakers are improperly influenced by money, there is a real deleterious effect on the political system.

"It's about the right to participate in one's government," Mr. Hawley told us. "It's a vital part of what it means to be free."

Missourians want ethics reform because they want to believe in their government again. That is true of liberals and conservatives, city-dwellers and farmers, Democrats, Republicans, and everybody in between.

What is the Missouri legislature waiting for?

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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