Sunday, January 17, 2016

Missouri Legislature playing shell game with ethics reform

Forgive me if I don't get too excited about the Missouri Legislature's sudden emphasis on ethics reform.

For more than a decade we have had the most corrupt legislature in the United States. Lobbyists can give as many free meals, booze, tickets, and trips as they want to our elected officials as long as they report those gifts.

Those wishing to influence legislators can also dip into their pocketbooks and give as much money as they want.

And suddenly, everyone is talking about ethics.

As always seems to be the case, it started with sex.

Former Speaker of the House John Diehl, a Republican, started the uproar when he resigned after the Kansas City Star revealed a series of inappropriate messages he sent to a teenage intern from Missouri Southern State University.

The next one to get hit with allegations involving sex was Sen. Paul Levota, a Democrat, who also resigned.

With the sex angle, statewide news sources, including the Star and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch linked the legislators' boorish behavior with the meals and booze provided by the lobbyists and for once, people began paying attention.

And as always happens when something continues to be in the news, legislation started being filed. The first four ethics bills passed the House last week. The most publicized one would prevent legislators from becoming lobbyists immediately after they leave office. Under the bill, they have to wait one year...unless, of course, they are among those who are term limited this year. Those 25 legislators will be able to become lobbyists immediately. A one-year break is better than nothing, but not much.

Another bill would require legislators to file reports on their personal finances twice a year instead of once a year. If you have ever read one of those reports, you would know this reform is meaningless. For instance, legislators have to report any outside employment that pays them more than $1,000...but they do not have to report how much more than $1,000. It can be $1,001 or it can be $10 million, but you won't ever know the difference.

That information would have been useful a few years ago for this area when former Rep. Steve Hunter, R-Carl Junction, worked as a membership recruiter for Associated Industries of Missouri, a top business lobbying group, at the same time as he was sponsoring right-to-work legislation that would benefit AIM's clients. Hunter never filed any right-to-work legislation until he took the job with AIM.. The forms did not require Hunter to reveal how much he was receiving. Even worse, when complaints were filed about Hunter's activities, House leadership did not think he had done anything unethical.

Meaningful ethics change would include the elimination of all lobbyists' gifts and the restoration of campaign contribution limits.

Neither of those things is likely to happen.

Sen. Ron Richard, R-Joplin, (and others) have famously said, "You can't buy my vote for a sandwich," or similar statemenst. Perhaps not, but you can buy access and most of these gifts are for far more than a sandwich.

Legislators already receive per diem payments for meals courtesy of the taxpayers. They also have offices that are paid for by the taxpayers. There is no reason why lobbyists cannot meet with legislators in those offices.

As for the campaign contributions, transparency is not all it is cracked up to be. When the contribution limits were scrapped, we were told the new wild west system would be much better because people were forming all kinds of committees to get around the limits. Wouldn't it have made more sense to plug those loopholes?

Instead, we have retired billionaire Rex Sinquefield pouring $1 million into former Speaker of the House Catherine Hanaway's campaign for governor. One of Hanaway's opponents, former Navy Seal Eric Greitens has received $1 million from California venture capitalist Michael Goguen.

Those are only two of hundreds of examples of the effect big money is having on Missouri politics.

The legislative session has just begun and there could always be meaningful ethics legislation before the session concludes in May, but I won't be surprised if the only changes are cosmetic ones.

As for the sex scandal that started the latest push toward ethical reform, the legislature has already dealt with it by having its members undergo sexual harassment training.

So essentially, the taxpayers are having to pay an outside firm to do sensitivity training for adults who should know better.

It is hard to expect any ethics reform from people who have to have a consultant tell them that it is wrong to put their hands on the interns.

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