(The following is my column from this week's Newton County News.)
One of the hallmarks of our legislative system is how quickly our elected officials react when something horrible happens.
We saw it with Congress after Sept. 11, 2001, and to a smaller scale, we saw it in Missouri this year following the tragic deaths of 11 people in the Anderson Guest House fire.
On June 2, with much fanfare, Gov. Matt Blunt came to Anderson and signed a bill, which increased safety and mandated sprinkler systems in group homes to keep a tragedy like the Anderson Guest House fire from ever occurring again.
That bill was scheduled to go into effect one week from today, the operative word being scheduled. With considerably less publicity, a little-known legislative committee called JCAR (the Joint Committee on Administrative Rules) has blocked the law from taking effect.
JCAR is the court of last resort for lobbyists who want to block legislation that will cost their clients and the lobbyists who represent the nursing home industry are among the most powerful in Missouri.
The industry, using a tactic employed by other special interests has avoided Missouri’s campaign contribution limits (which will be removed a week from today, thanks to legislation that did not get blocked by any committee) by forming multiple political action committees and then contributing the maximum from each committee to favored candidates. The industry has also funneled funds through various legislative committees, enabling them to increase their influence, to the detriment of residents of these facilities and Missouri taxpayers.
To illustrate the effect these contributions have on the process, examine the money two top members of JCAR have received from the nursing home industry.
The chairman, Sen. Luann Ridgeway, R-Smithville, received $2,600 on March 28, via four maximum $650 contributions from Missouri Health Care Association political action committees. Ms. Ridgeway’s October 2007 disclosure report filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission shows an additional $4,700 that can be connected to the industry. Yet even with this obvious conflict of interest, Ms. Ridgeway ran the committee that blocked legislation the industry did not want to take effect.
The legislator who represents the area of Joplin in which I live, Rep. Bryan Stevenson, R-Webb City, has even more obvious connections with the industry and has played a key role in efforts to block legislation it opposed in the past.
The January 2008 quarterly report filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission shows Stevenson receiving $3,500 in contributions, including $1,950 from six PACS formed by the Missouri Health Care Association and $975 from three interests represented by MHCA lobbyist William Gamble, with the three interests, Rural Telecommunications Association, MO Plan, and MORESPAC, all sharing the same address, P. O. Box 1865, Jefferson City...the address of Gamble's lobbying firm.
Last year, Stevenson, at the time the vice chairman of JCAR, attempted to block other rules designed to increase nursing home safety, which were strongly opposed by his contributors. Only this time, his efforts were unsuccessful, thanks to reporter David Catanese of KY3 who shined a rare spotlight on the inner workings of JCAR.
Stevenson, a lawyer, said he was merely paying attention to the details of the bill, and that some did not fit with statutory requirements. Another explanation could come from his earlier Ethics Commission disclosure forms, which I noted in my book, The Turner Report. I wrote:
“That is evident in the disclosure report filed eight days before the 2006 general election. In this report, which was issued when campaign contribution limits were still in effect for Missouri candidates, Stevenson received maximum $325 contributions from the Missouri Health Care Association, the most powerful group representing the nursing home industry, District C of the Missouri Health Care Association, and Cornerstone Healthcare, Rogers, Ark.
“Even more telling were nine contributions, totaling $2,275, received by Stevenson on Oct. 20, 2006. These included $325 contributions from the Health Care Association Good Government Fund, Missouri Assisted Living PAC, Residential Care Facility PAC, MORESPAC, Burlington Northern Railway, and the Rural Telecommunications PAC. Two hundred fifty dollars contributions were received from the Missouri Pharmacy PAC and the Missouri Community Pharmacy PAC.
“Many of those names are not associated with the nursing home industry, but they have one thing in common- they are represented by one of the most powerful lobbying firms in Missouri- Gamble & Schlemeier, headed by William Gamble and Jorgen Schlemeier.
All of those contributions came one day after Gamble & Schlemeier signed the Missouri Health Care Association as a client. One of the major skills of the lobbying firm over the years has been its ability to deliver large number of bundled contributions for its biggest clients through the use of its apparent minor clients.
“Two months after receiving more than $3,000 in contributions that can reasonably be connected to the nursing home industry, Bryan Stevenson, behind closed doors, made a considered, though unsuccessful, effort to gut nursing home reform.”
As anyone who has been in a vermin-infested household knows, when the lights are turned on, the roaches run in every direction. When it came to a bill that started with Neosho Republican Kevin Wilson, a bill overwhelmingly passed by both houses in the light of day, the lights were off, and in that atmosphere, the lobbyists and special interests thrive.