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Watchdog: Follow the Money

Missouri lawmakers divided on ethics law process

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Associated Press,Watchdog,Missouri,Ethics,Follow the Money

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Missouri House panel members from both parties agreed Tuesday that the state needs to update its ethics laws, but were divided on how to do it and how far an overhaul should go.

The House General Laws Committee considered several proposals, including ones that would impose a cooling-off period between when lawmakers leave office and when they can become lobbyists, require limits on campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts, and call for legislators to disclose additional financial information on business partnerships and holdings.

But after the hearing, there was no clear consensus on which provisions the committee would adopt as part of an ethics package. Committee chairman Rep. Caleb Jones, R-Columbia, said he was looking at taking a more piecemeal approach to the issue.

"I'm afraid this is going to go before a judge and it will be struck down and the public will continue to lack trust," Jones said.

He cited a 2010 ethics law that was struck down for violating a section of the Missouri Constitution prohibiting legislators from amending a bill to change its original purpose.

Missouri is the only state to allow the trio of unlimited contributions to candidates, unlimited gifts from lobbyists and no waiting period before an elected official can lobby.

The committee did not vote on any of the proposals, but Jones said it would likely take up the issue next week.

Democrats argued the state needed a comprehensive approach to overhaul campaign finance and ethics laws, particularly in the area of campaign contributions.

Republicans have generally been resistant to including campaign contribution caps in ethics proposals and argued that limits would reduce transparency. Democrats have said that limits must be part of the discussion.

There was also resistance to Democratic Rep. Kevin McManus' proposal that would increase the state's financial disclosure requirements for elected officials and strengthen the enforcement power of the Missouri Ethics Commission.

"This moves the power back to the bureaucracy and undercuts the people's representatives," said Rep. Rocky Miller, R-Tuscumbia.

Some Republicans also raised concerns about instituting a revolving-door policy for lawmakers becoming lobbyists. One member said the Legislature shouldn't limit any person's ability to make a living — a stance that earned condemnation from Democrats.

Despite the disagreements, lawmakers did acknowledge that an ethics proposal needs to be seriously considered this year.

"The hope is that no matter how we do it procedurally that something gets done," said McManus, D-Kansas City.

There was also a common theme in some of the proposals from members of both parties to place a cap on how much lawmakers can receive from lobbyists. One proposal sponsored by Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, would cap gifts at $500 per quarter.

His bill would also require lobbyists to disclose which members of a committee received meals or gifts from lobbyists — a loophole in the state's current disclosure laws.

For example, members of the General Laws Committee dined during Tuesday's hearing on food provided by Harness and Associates. The lobbying group did not testify on any of the ethics measures, but was in support of a bill endorsed by the committee Tuesday that would allow motorcycle sales to take place on Sunday.

Under current law, that meal will only appear on disclosure reports as a gift to the committee and not show up on individual members' reports. Rowden's bill, however, would only apply to committee expenses made outside the state Capitol.

A Senate committee also conducted hearings on campaign finance and ethics legislation on Tuesday.

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