Amos Bridges of the Springfield News-Leader offers a rare look at the effect lobbyists have on legislators.
And, in a major surprise, none of the legislators say it has any effect on them whatsoever:
State Rep. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, received the highest total of any local legislator.
A senior member of the local Republican delegation, Dixon accepted $1,332.31 in food and gifts but said meals with lobbyists don't influence how he votes.
"I'll sit down and listen to them, but I'm going to vote my conscience, period," Dixon said Friday. "Most legislators live by this, and it's a cardinal rule for me. Every vote has to be weighed on its own merits."
"Because of term limits, there's a lot we have to go to lobbyists to find out, such as the past record of a bill that comes up," he said.
"A lot of times we're talking to lobbyists on both sides of the issue."
While I have no doubt that legislators genuinely believe they are not selling their souls to the devil when they allow lobbyists to buy them gifts, they do not seem to understand that even the appearance of impropriety has a major effect on the public's perception of them.
And again, these friendly dinners provide the lobbyists with the type of access that is not available to the average constituent.
Not all legislators interviewed by Bridges accept lobbyists' gifts:
Still, (Rep. Jay) Wasson, R-Nixa, (pictured) prefers to pay his own way. Reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission show he has repaid all but one meal or gift received this year."
He said he's already sent a check for the last gift — tickets to a Springfield Cardinals game that were part of an Aug. 21 meeting with the Springfield Area Chamber of Commerce.
"I was probably there for about 20 minutes, and I don't think I even ate anything," Wasson said, acknowledging that his policy can be a hassle at times.
"I don't have a problem with other people (accepting free meals), but for me personally, if I'm going to be voting on something, I'd just as soon buy my own dinner and pay my own bills," he said. "That way, I don't have to worry about where the line's drawn."
Rep. Mike Cunningham, R-Marshfield, the only other local legislator to repay all lobbyist-provided meals, gave similar reasons for doing so.
"It's kind of a challenge, and there's nothing wrong for the people that accept it ... I just kind of want to do it that way," he said. "I'm a big boy, and I can pay for my own meals.
It is a shame other legislators do not share that view.
Hopefully, the Springfield News-Leader will assign Bridges to follow up on his story, perhaps with an examination of how lobbyists provide campaign contributions for their clients and themselves, another practice that, quite rightly, should make the public question the influence they have on our state legislature.