JEFFERSON CITY — At the legislative session's start in January, lawmakers proclaimed they were prioritizing banning lobbyists' gifts. The Missouri House passed legislation in less than two weeks and sent it to the Senate.
Since then? Nothing.
Legislators have about six weeks left to pass a bill that, in its current form, would, with a few exceptions, ban lobbyist spending, which usually comes in the form of meals or gifts, such as ties and coffee mugs. The legislation hasn't been taken up since Jan. 31.
"This should be something that we should champion," said Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann ($0), who introduced the bill, HB 60. "It's not hard, yet the Senate seems like they have issues with it. It should not be surprising that those who take the most free stuff want to continue their right to take free stuff. It's beyond ridiculous."
Since at least 2007, the average senator has accepted more in lobbying money than the average representative, according to figures from the Missouri Ethics Commission. Through the end of February this year, senators, on average, have accepted three times as much as representatives.
Sen. Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City ($325.87), who heads the committee the bill is in and is the majority floor leader in the Senate, said distinguishing between "pay-for-play" gifts and small-ticket items, such as accepting a sandwich at a luncheon for the local Rotary Club, is responsible for the hold-up.
"Trying to get clarification on what is a gift and what's not a gift sometimes bogs us down a little bit," he said. "The problem is the public perception seems to be: If the Senate isn't moving on the gift ban, they want to take gifts. In my experience, that's not the issue."
Alferman introduced a similar bill last session. Like this year, it passed the House, and after it was sent to the Senate, lawmakers didn't touch it for about two months. They took it up with about three weeks left in the 2016 session, but it didn't end up passing.
During his Jan. 17 State of the State address, Gov. Eric Greitens asked the General Assembly to pass the lobbyist gift ban.
"I signed an executive order banning gifts from lobbyists to state employees of the executive branch," he said. "I think all elected officials should do the same."
Alferman and Kehoe, who introduced a similar bill in the Senate, expressed support for the gift ban in January.
"Lobbyist gifts are going to continue to be an issue," Kehoe told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "The governor's made it crystal clear, and so has the (House) speaker. So it's in our best interest to make a bill with good, tight limits, not try and trick people and get something to the governor's desk."
Despite those public proclamations and the fast work of the House, the legislation has languished in the Senate's rules committee. It must get voted out of committee before being debated on the Senate floor.
"I have been pretty complimentary of Senate leadership and their willingness to get this done," Alferman said, "but we got that bill over to the Senate historically fast, and it has not made its way out of committee. ... Whenever you have the House that can send it over in four days; you have the governor who's said, 'Get this to my desk, I want to sign this;' and you have the Senate going, 'I just don't know how we can get this done;' it's so frustrating."
Parker Briden, the governor's spokesman, said Greitens wants to see the bill passed.
"This is a priority for the governor," he said. "We're going to make sure it gets done."
Sen. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia ($3,824.78), is the House bill's handler in the Senate. He said other bills have taken priority, but he thinks there's still a chance the gift ban could pass.
"We're not out of the window of getting something done," he said. "The Senate has taken up a wealth of really big, contentious issues" this session.
Rowden said some senators were opposed to the gift ban on principle: As long as they disclose how much money was spent on them, the current set-up is fine. Rowden said he doesn't agree with that position.
Many lawmakers — on both sides of the aisle — have taken thousands in lobbyists' money, but Alferman and Kehoe have not, according to a review of the disclosure forms submitted by lobbyists*.
Lobbyists have provided gifts and paid for Alferman's meals since he was elected in 2014, but, unlike many of his colleagues, he's always reimbursed them.
For instance, in 2016, a lobbyist brought him a coffee mug worth $11.42 during an annual Lobby Day, but he returned it, according to the disclosure form. The year before, he repaid a lobbyist for a $70 meal.
Kehoe has acted similarly. Lobbyists have paid for gifts and meals, but the senator has mostly reimbursed them, according to the disclosure forms. In one instance in 2015, Kehoe "did attend (a meal) but did not eat," according to the form.
Since being elected to the Senate in 2010, he's taken about $100 in lobbying money. His staff has taken about $200 during the same time.
As a representative from 2012 to 2015, Rowden and his staff accepted about $4,000 in lobbyists gifts, according to the disclosure forms. Since he was elected a senator in 2016, he's taken one $10 lunch with a lobbyist, but he reimbursed her.
Rep. Deb Lavender, D-Kirkwood ($0), introduced a bill similar to Alferman's this session, but, in the Republican-controlled General Assembly, it wasn't taken up. Lavender, who's received meals from lobbyists but has always reimbursed them, is worried Alferman's bill is destined for the same fate as last year's.
"I think it places limitations on legislators who have gotten used to some of the perks of being elected," she said about the gift ban. "It's nice when people want to buy you meals or give you gifts or take you on trips, so I think there's a little part of that that's hard to turn down."
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit, email@example.com.