Tuesday, February 01, 2011
Speaker of the House keeps his promise to reject lobbyists' gifts
Anyone who has read my newspaper columns or blog posts over the last two decades know that I have strong feelings (to put it mildly) about the influence of money in politics.
I was angered a few years ago when the same politicians who preach constantly about following the wishes of the people, ignored those wishes completely and did away with campaign contribution limits.
Ours has become a system in which the voice of the people is silenced unless that voice is bolstered by a stack of greenbacks.
And then there are the lobbyists.
Back in the days when I interviewed politicians on a regular basis, I had one after another tell me that his or her vote could not be bought for a sandwich and a cup of coffee. (None of them ever mentioned a gambling excursion or hard liquor, but of course, we all know politicians don't frequent gaming establishments and never touch spirits.)
When they delivered those lines, I had no doubt they believed them, because most politicians do not enter public life to enrich themselves. But the perception is there and more importantly, so is the access.
Lobbyists serve an important purpose in our system. They provide needed information on subjects that affect their clients. But anyone who doesn't believe that their access and socialization with legislators doesn't play a major role in the bills that pass through the General Assembly is naive.
In these days of financial difficulty, it is hard to sympathize with legislators who accept more in lobbyists' gifts during a calendar year than many of their constituents make working 40 hours a week for five or six months.
Most of the time, legislation designed to curb lobbyists' influence never makes it out of committee and is usually proposed by legislators who spend most of their time tilting at windmills.
That was not the case during the 2010 session.
I was surprised when I received an e-mail from Majority Leader (now Speaker of the House) Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, saying he wanted to talk to me. Since I had written numerous times about the large number of lobbyists' gifts he had accepted, I was expecting to hear harsh criticism of The Turner Report. That was not what Tilley had in mind.
Tilley told me he had read my posts and did not like what he was reading. "I knew that no lobbyist gift was going to buy my vote, but I printed a couple of the stories out and showed them to my dad. He told me he knew I hadn't done anything wrong, but he said it sure looks bad."
From that point on, Tilley has reimbursed any lobbyist who paid for a meal. It is not a matter of legislators going hungry if they don't get fed by lobbyists. "We get paid for our food," he noted. "We receive a per diem."
Tilley followed up his conversation with a wide-ranging ethics bill, which included the total elimination of lobbyists' gifts. It did not make him popular and despite his power (let there be no doubt about it, Tilley may not have been the Speaker last year, but he was the most powerful legislator in the House), the gift ban did not survive in the watered down version of his ethics bill that eventually passed.
It would have been easy for Steve Tilley to fall back into old habits, but he has not. As Missouri Ethics Commission records posted Monday show, Tilley scrupulously reimbursed lobbyists every cent of every meal or gift he was offered.
The publicity over his promise was a thing of the past, but Tilley stood by his word.
Tilley's continued stance against lobbyists' gifts is not the only principled stand he has taken. Even thought Missouri law permits it, Tilley refuses to accept campaign contributions while the legislature is in session to prevent any perception of being influenced on any legislation that comes before him.
During the State of the State message last week, Gov. Jay Nixon rightly criticized the problems, both in perception and in reality of eliminating campaign contribution limits. Tilley, who believes there should be no limits (and who has accepted many oversized contributions) says that if Nixon feels so strongly about it, Nixon should stop accepting those hefty checks.
And while it is true that would be easier said than done since it would put Nixon at a considerable fundraising disadvantage to such potential 2012 challengers as Lt. Gov. Peter Kinder, Tilley, more than any elected official in the state of Missouri has the standing to challenge Nixon on his statement.
Tilley, unlike many who rise to power in government, has taken a principled stand and has not backed down from it.