JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri lawmakers are running out of time to consider ethics measures this year and, though legislative leaders are still hopeful, familiar opposition has emerged to suggest the issue is at an impasse.
During each of the last two sessions, bills to curb lobbying have been derailed in the Senate by Democratic attempts to reinstate campaign contribution limits. Majority party Republicans argue that campaign finance and ethics should be two separate issues. Democrats say curbing money's influence in politics requires donation limits.
Both sides show no signs of backing down before lawmakers adjourn May 16. A stalemate means Missouri would continue to be the only state that allows the trio of unlimited contributions to candidates, unlimited gifts from lobbyists and no waiting period before elected officials can lobby.
Senate debate on an ethics bill this year hit a roadblock when a Democrat offered an amendment to impose campaign contribution caps. The most recent version of the bill to be debated would require lawmakers to reimburse most gifts from lobbyists within 30 days and institute a two-year cooling-off period before lawmakers could lobby after leaving office.
"Until we get campaign finance limits to be a part of this, we are not fixing the problem at all," said Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, who had sponsored an amendment to impose campaign contribution limits.
A 2006 law removed contribution limits for about six months before being struck down on procedural grounds by the state Supreme Court. The legislature then repealed the contributions limits again in 2008.
Holsman's amendment would set campaign limits per election cycle at $10,000 for statewide candidates, $5,000 for state Senate races and $2,500 for House contests. Debate has not resumed since the bill was laid over after the amendment was offered.
A bill to institute a waiting period met a similar fate last year. It was set aside in the final weeks of the session after Senate Democrats tried to add a campaign donation cap. It was never brought up again.
Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey was one of the Republican lawmakers to vote against repealing the contribution limits, but he said that the two issues should be dealt with separately. He said he is open to considering ethics legislation this year, but added the legislature has had to deal with other matters, including overhauls of the state's criminal and education laws.
"Sometimes an issue gets traction because there aren't other things to do," said Dempsey, R-St. Charles. "We've dealt with some very substantive issues that take a lot of floor time and, frankly, a lot of time off the floor."
The end result of the gridlock could be that lobbyists have at least one more year to spend lavishly on efforts to influence public policy. During the first three months of this year, legislators raked in about $410,000 in freebies from lobbyists.
Lobbyists and lawmakers could also continue to take advantage of a loophole that allows expenditures to be reported for a group of lawmakers, without identifying which specific lawmakers were present. In addition to requiring most gifts to be reimbursed, the Senate bill would close that loophole.
Missouri Ethics Commission records show that lobbyists spent $60,000 on individual lawmakers through March this year, but gave $350,000 in food, drink, entertainment and gifts that weren't disclosed on a legislator's monthly report. Those gifts were reported as expenditures on legislative committees or under other categories, such as the "entire General Assembly," and there is no way to tell which lawmakers partook.
An ethics bill to reign in lobbyist gifts is awaiting debate on the House calendar. House Speaker Tim Jones said he hopes the chamber will debate the bill before the session ends in two weeks.
Associated Press writer Chris Blank contributed to this report.