State Senate strikes gift cap

Legislators also voted down a rule change allowing laptop use in the Senate chamber.
Wednesday, February 2, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 8:04 a.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri senators on Tuesday removed the lid on the value of gifts they can accept from lobbyists but closed the lid on laptop computers.

By a voice vote, the Senate voted to eliminate from its rules a provision barring senators from accepting gifts worth more than $50 from a single lobbyist or more than $100 in gifts from multiple lobbyists per year.

Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, was the only senator to object. She said removing the cap ensures lobbyists will spend more money on senators at the expense of public credibility.

“I’m not saying that everyone is bought and paid for here because that’s not the case,” Bray said, “but again, there are cases where the public can point to favorable outcomes for moneyed interests. I know the public feels that way, and I think anything we can do to allay those perceptions, we should be doing.”

The change will have no impact on mandatory reporting to the Missouri Ethics Commission. Lobbyists are required to provide detailed accounts of how much money they spend and who got it.

Speaking in favor of the rule change, Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said the 10-year-old rule is outdated and unenforceable and gives only a perception of ethical behavior.

“The current method is an illusion that senators must be ethical,” he said. “We have to report it, and if the constituents don’t like it, they can hold you accountable.”

The change was recommended by the Senate Ethics Committee, whose chairman, Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, called the cap an “arcane” rule that became unnecessary when lobbyists’ expense reports to the ethics commission became accessible online.

“They can go out and look at those reports and determine exactly what level of giving and receiving any given legislator does, and I think that’s a powerful tool,” he said.

In addition to eliminating restrictions on gifts, the Senate rejected an amendment to permit laptop computers in the chamber. The amendment’s sponsor — Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee’s Summit — said the Senate must maximize the tools available to improve the body’s ability to govern. Proponents said computers would reduce paper, making the body more efficient while allowing constituents to contact lawmakers by e-mail about issues as they are being debated.

“Lord forbid if we were to allow our constituents to taint our debate,” Bartle said.

Opponents to the change included some of the Senate’s newest members. Freshman Sen. Chris Koster, R-Harrisonville, said that the Senate floor was not designed for office work and that computers would reduce the level of debate and threaten the decision-making process.

“This is not the place where I catch up on e-mails. And this not the place where I check my stock, and this is not the place where we trade on eBay,” he said. “And it’s really not the place where we communicate with constituents. It’s the place where we communicate with one another.”

The debate, which turned into free-ranging discussion on accountability to the populace and lobbyist influence, prompted Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, to set his two cell phones and Palm Pilot upon his desk and briefly decline to use his microphone. Others toyed with Blackberries and similar devices as the debate raged.

“Computers are about a need for speed, and that is not what the Senate should be about,” Gross said.

Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Independence, threatened to offer an amendment allowing lobbyists to communicate with senators wearing earpieces.

“I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie ‘Manchurian Candidate,’ but maybe we should just have diodes put into our brain so that they don’t even need to directly communicate to us on the floor,” he said.

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