(The following, which includes most of one of last week's posts, is my column for this week's Newton County News.)
One of the biggest problems Missourians face when it comes to the corrupting influence of lobbyists in our government is the helping hand given to these special interests by the media.
It is considered business as usual when legislators accept free trips. concert tickets, meals, and booze from people who want to sway their vote on issues that will affect everyone in the state.
If you criticize the system, you are immediately labeled as naïve, a Pollyanna who is dreaming of a perfect world that cannot possibly exist. And even when “reforms” are pushed through the legislature, always grudgingly, they are left with holes big enough to put a semi-truck and a Chihuahua.
The media may not realize the way Missourians feel about lobbyists and special interests, but legislators do. Why else would they hide a system that allowed lobbyists to pay for parties and other gatherings, without any of the special interest money showing up on the reports filed for each legislator with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
That sweet arrangement for the Missouri General Assembly was revealed in audits of the House and Senate released last week by State Auditor Susan Montee.
The reports were almost universally ignored by the Missouri media, lightly touched on and then immediately forgotten, swept away with yesterday’s news.
So who can blame the legislators for the defiant tone they showed in their responses to its findings. The legislators appeared to be saying that they are having lobbyists foot the bill for their parties to save the taxpayers money.
Did it ever occur to any of them that we did not send them to Jefferson City to party?
The cover page letter for the audit of the State Senate begins:
“Donations are solicited from lobbyists by senators or Senate officials and used to pay various costs, including Christmas parties and gift cards for Senate staff, retirement receptions and gifts for outgoing senators, and food and beverage costs of senators and Senate staff when working late during legislative sessions. These donations have been deposited into a separate bank account maintained outside the state treasury, although it is not clear there is authority to do so. Since the establishment of the account in December 2003, donations totaling $76,070 have been deposited into this account, with $60,945 being disbursed from this account. Donations have been received from over 100 different lobbyists or lobbyist principals. Some of these donations (9 of 15 tested) were not properly reported by the lobbyists to the Missouri Ethics Commission, as required by law.
“Also, some control weaknesses were noted over the receipt and handling of these monies . Actively soliciting donations from lobbyists could give the appearance of, and may result in, a conflict of interest. In addition, constitutional and statutory provisions indicate that state funds are to be held and disbursed by the state treasurer. To promote compliance with laws related to lobbyist activities, the Senate should notify lobbyists of the reporting requirement when soliciting and receiving donations, and the need to amend expenditure reports filed with the Ethic Commission for any donations not previously reported.”
This was the Senate's response:
“Although the Administrator's Fund does not involve tax payers' funds in any way and may provide more convenience and efficiency in the handling of certain expenditures, its creation was also part of an on-going effort by the Senate to lower costs to the state. Previously, depending upon the expenditure, items would either be paid using the Senate contingent appropriation (general revenue), or via payment from a donor to a third party. Since its creation, relevant expenses are simply paid from this account (which is comprised solely of donations for the designated purposes) resulting in the saving of state resources.
The most important benefit the use of this account has afforded is transparency and accountability in the reporting of funds received and expenditures made. Each dollar received and expenditure incurred has been clearly detailed and documented.”
Obviously, having special interests chip in to make social occasions possible for Senate and staff is a wonderful thing for taxpayers.
The following passage is found in the cover letter to the audit of the Missouri House:
“Donations are solicited from lobbyists by House members and/or staff for various costs, including staff Christmas parties, retirement receptions, and food for late work sessions. The House did not maintain records of the expenses paid by lobbyists, therefore, the extent of such payments and the lobbyists who paid them could not be readily determined; however, the amounts could be substantial as our audit of the Senate noted over $49,000 was donated by lobbyists during the 3 years ended June 30, 2008, to pay similar expenses of the Senate and its staff. In addition, the House did not notify or remind the lobbyists of the need to report the expenses paid on behalf of the House to the Missouri Ethics Commission.
“Actively soliciting donations from lobbyists could give the appearance of, and may result in, a conflict of interest. To promote compliance with laws related to lobbyist activities, the House should notify lobbyists of the reporting requirement when soliciting and receiving donations, and of the need to amend expenditure reports filed with the Ethics Commission for any donations not previously reported.”
The House response is just as arrogant as the one given by the Senate:
“The House of Representatives agrees that all donations or gifts provided to reportable entities should be fully and correctly reported to the Missouri Ethics Commission (MEC). However, the House has neither the jurisdiction to enforce the MEC reporting requirements nor the legal obligation to notify lobbying entities regarding reportable events or reporting methods associated with lobbyist donations or gifts; this comports with the same level of jurisdiction and legal obligation as each state-wide office holder in Missouri. Such jurisdiction and obligations are placed within the Missouri Ethics Commission to be independent of and outside the immediate reach of individuals that may benefit from such lobbyist gifts or donations.”
In other words, the fault lies with the lobbyists, not the legislators who begged them to pay for their soirees. This kind of arrogance is precisely why voters have lost confidence in elected officials. It also unfairly tarnishes the many legislators who do not condone this kind of activity.
Now would be a good time for those legislators to start speaking up.