In Columbia, Missouri Rep. Wright presses for lobbyist reform

Wednesday, July 30, 2014 | 10:24 p.m. CDT; updated 7:04 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 31, 2014

COLUMBIA — State Rep. John Wright wants to change an inappropriate culture of entitlement he said is pervading the Missouri state Capitol.

Wright, D-Rocheport, hosted a town hall meeting Wednesday evening at the Columbia Public Library where he shared his recent findings on lobbyist gift practices in the Missouri legislature. The vice chair of the House Ethics Committee also discussed what he called Missouri's exceptionally lax campaign finance laws and shared suggestions for solutions to these issues that he said are endangering our democratic system.

A number of problems have grown out of the current situation, Wright said. Special interest tax subsidies, or tax credits, have increased sixfold over the past 15 years. Mostly going to groups with significant representation in the capital, tax credits have risen to nearly 8 percent of Missouri's GDP, a little more than $600 million a year.

He said these credits are taking away funding from fundamental parts of the state budget, such as education and infrastructure.

"We hear a lot of talk about how we haven't been able to fully fund our education funding formula. That's not just because the economy has taken a dip. It's really because more and more of our resources are being drained off to these subsidy programs."

But Wright was not defeatist about the role of lobbyists and money in the state government.

"This isn't just one of those things where we all just have to roll over and play dead," he said.

Wright's first suggestion for reform is for Missouri citizens to frequently ask legislators to join 12 other states that have implemented bans on lobbyist gifts or, at minimum, strict caps like most states.

He said Missouri residents can also ask their legislators to reinstate Missouri's traditional campaign finance laws and ask them to sign a "no gift" pledge, which he is currently the only house member to have signed.

"It puts a legislator in an awkward position if people keep calling and asking why they haven't signed the no-gift pledge," Wright said.

Because of how entrenched in the capital's culture lobbyist gift-giving has become, Wright said he sees the best options for change coming from outside the legislative process. He said every year bills are proposed that would limit campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts, but they never actually make it to a vote in either house.

"Change is not going to happen from the inside out," he said. "It's got to happen from the outside in."

He suggested Missourians put together petitions and propose ballot measures aimed at changing the rules about campaign finance and lobbyist gifts.

"All of these issues poll really well," Wright said. "Put campaign finance reform or ethics caps on a ballot, and you'll win in a landslide. The only place you'd lose that vote is inside the capitol building."

Currently, Missouri legislators are able to accept unlimited gifts from lobbyists. In 2013, legislators accepted almost $1 million in personal gifts. These include travel expenses, tickets to concerts and sporting events, meals and drinks, according to data from the Missouri Ethics Commission.

Wright authored an editorial in March, calling out some of his colleagues for accepting so many gifts and for sponsoring bills written by lobbyists. Wright said Wednesday that although many of his fellow elected officials are good people, he thinks they are falling into this inappropriate culture.

Missouri is one of only four states without any limits to campaign contributions. For decades, Missouri campaign contribution restrictions limited individual donations for statewide races to $1,350. A law was passed in 2008 that removed all limits on campaign contributions.

"Now it is fairly routine for individuals to contribute a quarter-million or half-million dollars in one check to a single race," Wright said.

"When we couple that with our lack of any legal limits on lobbyist gifts ... (these) things contribute to a culture that progressively tilts the scales in favor of certain interest groups that have financing and influence in the Capitol, at the expense of the general public."

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