COLUMBIA — Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, spent this past legislative session working to improve the ethics in Missouri's legislature.
Those efforts were met with mixed success, and political scientists question whether the end result will have much impact.
Rowden, currently in the running for the Missouri Senate, guided two major ethics bills through the legislature during the last session. He co-sponsored one that would ban lobbyist gifts, and sponsored another that would close the "revolving door" between being a legislator and becoming a lobbyist.
The House passed the bills with little resistance, but both stalled in the Senate. The Senate watered down Rowden's original proposal for a two-year "cooling-off" period for legislators to six months. The lobbyist gift ban was taken up for debate but never passed.
Rowden said he's hopeful the gift ban will have more success during the next legislative session.
"It's my hope that if we pass it this year, that's the form that it stays in, and we just kind of rip the Band-Aid off, and we ban them and move on," Rowden said.
Under current law, there is no ban on lobbyist gifts in Missouri. Other states have more stringent laws. In Kansas, gifts cannot exceed $40, according to the Kansas legislature's website.
MU political science professor Peverill Squire said a gift ban is ultimately just for show.
"It won't dramatically change anybody's behavior," Squire said.
Rowden said lobbyist gifts have decreased considerably since the bill first came into play in January.
"I think it being more in the spotlight, I think has caused some behaviors to change," Rowden said.
According to the Missouri Ethics Commission, lobbyists spent $484,619.34 on gifts for legislators during the 2015 legislative session. In 2016, that amount went down to $395,483.50.
Squire said Missouri's ethics laws are weaker than other states, a sentiment Gov. Jay Nixon has echoed. He cited ethics reform as a priority during his January State of the State address.
"Most states have stronger ethics laws than Missouri does," Squire said. "They're not perfect, and they don't cure all the problems, but Missouri is suffering from certainly the appearance of a great deal of impropriety."
Beth Rosenson, a political science professor at the University of Florida, said gift bans are full of loopholes. For example, even with a ban, a legislator could take a gift from a friend who is also affiliated with the legislature.
"It gets into a gray area when a legislator says he was taking the gift strictly as a friend and was not influenced unduly," Rosenson said.
Rosenson said the strength of a state's ethics laws depends on the strength of the state's ethics commission.
"If the commission is weak, then it really doesn't matter what the laws say," Rosenson said.
Thad Kousser, a professor of political science at the University of California-San Diego, said he thinks Missouri's lack of legislation on lobbyist gifts could lead to corruption.
"It leaves wide open one door of potential corruption from interests groups," said Kousser, who used to be a legislative staffer. "But, there are, of course, many other doors."
Rowden's revolving door measure took effect Aug. 28, but there is no consensus about whether it will be effective.
Kousser said revolving door bills have caused controversy across the nation because some think they may not be effective. Even if Rowden's original two-year "cooling-off period" had passed, lobbyists and legislators might still maintain their connections, he said.
"In six months, will everyone have forgotten their personal relationships? Absolutely not," Kousser said. "But, after two years, they still won't have forgotten their relationships. In 10 years, they'll still remember those people."
Squire said that the six-month ban is insufficient. He called it a "token gesture."
Rep. Tony Dugger, R-Hartville, resigned on Aug. 19, nine days before the six-month ban took effect.
Rowden said he's disappointed the Senate reduced his proposed two-year waiting period.
"It certainly wasn't what I had hoped for. I think there were a lot of people in the House, me included, who were a little disappointed," Rowden said. "The Senate, I think, has some different ideas about what we should be doing in the ethics reform realm."
Rowden said he thinks, ultimately, the final version of the bill came down to the Senate simply wanting to pass something.
"I think more times than not, when you're faced with a decision of whether you're gonna pass something or pass nothing, I think more times than not it makes sense to pass something," Rowden said.
Rowden will face Rep. Stephen Webber, D-Columbia, to replace Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, in the November election.
In the past, Webber has said he supports a gift ban, but has also said ethics reform is not complete without limits on campaign contributions. Webber did not respond to multiple requests to comment.
Supervising editor is Mark Horvit