GOP Speaker Todd Richardson, who assumed leadership of the Missouri House a year ago when his predecessor resigned amid scandal, said the 2016 Legislative session brought progress toward change in a state that’s been called the wild west of ethics, but he’s disappointed a bill to limit lobbyist gifts didn’t win approval.
Lawmakers passed the state’s first-ever waiting period for lawmakers and other public officials seeking to become lobbyists, approved a ban on legislators and statewide elected officials hiring each other as political consultants and required elected officials to get rid of their campaign money before becoming lobbyists.
But two of the most sweeping proposals — a ban on gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers and campaign contribution limits — both failed. Republican legislative leaders didn’t set limiting campaign contributions as a priority, but Richardson said he’s upset the session ended without action on lobbyist gifts.
“There are some things that didn’t get across the finish line that we’re a little disappointed in,” Richardson said. “But we’ll be back to work on those next year.”
Work to clamp down on the state’s loose ethics policies has failed for years, but proponents’ efforts gained momentum following a series of recent scandals that marred the Capitol’s reputation.
The last legislative session ended in turmoil when Richardson’s predecessor, Republican John Diehl, stepped down as speaker and admitted to exchanging sexually suggestive texts with an intern.
Since then, two other lawmakers have resigned amid accusations of inappropriate behavior. Paul LeVota, a former Democratic senator from Independence, left office months after Diehl amid allegations that he sexually harassed interns, which he denied. Republican Don Gosen left the House under pressure in February when word spread that he was having an extramarital affair.
In response to resignations last year, the House enacted new rules that all members and staff must complete annual sexual harassment training. In addition, more employees are now mandated to report harassment.
A new law set to take effect Aug. 28 will require lawmakers, statewide elected officials and gubernatorial appointees that need Senate confirmation to wait six months after their terms end before they can be paid as lobbyists.
The policy would have stopped another former House speaker, Perryville Republican Steve Tilley, from resigning in August 2012 and then taking a job as a paid lobbyist for clients including construction companies. Former Independence Republican Rep. Noel Torpey quit in December 2014, months after winning re-election and weeks before the start of the 2015 legislative session, to take a job with a group that has lobbied the Legislature on utility issues.
University of Missouri law professor Richard Reuben said closing the revolving door of elected officials immediately leaving office to lobby their former colleagues is a step forward, but said lawmakers dodged the ethics issue if that’s the only progress that’s made.
“Whether this starts or ends the conversation is really going to be the decisive factor in terms of whether there’s going to really be ethics reform in the Missouri Legislature,” Reuben said.
Gov. Jay Nixon also has signed bills that will require candidates to dissolve campaign funds before becoming lobbyists and a ban on lawmakers and statewide elected officials hiring each other as political consultants.
Tilley, who accrued hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign funds that gathered interest during his time in office, held on to that money for years while working as a lobbyist until he closed his campaign in October. One of his last, largest single donations was $562,500, which went to a GOP political action committee called Missouri Majority PAC.
Republican Rep. Justin Alferman said of all the proposed changes to ethics, the bill he sponsored to ban lobbyist gifts “was the biggest one.”
The House in January passed a ban on most gifts overwhelmingly, but the Senate proposed watering down the bill to limit each lobbyist to spending $40 per day, per lawmaker on meals.
Under that proposal, legislators could still eat breakfast, lunch and dinner for free courtesy of different lobbyists.
The bill’s failure means lawmakers still can receive unlimited tickets to baseball games, concert tickets, spa services and steak dinners.
“People outside of this building would assume that that would have been the easiest one to get done,” Alferman said of the bill to limit gifts. “Unfortunately, it’s the hardest one to get done.”
Richardson said the first bill the House will pass next year will limit lobbyist gifts. If that’s not successful, both Richardson and Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard said they’ll consider changing internal House and Senate policy to cut down on gifts.
Efforts to put caps on campaign donations, which are unlimited in Missouri, also failed.
“It’s a joke to pretend that campaign contribution limits are not what is actually wrong with the Missouri Legislature,” House Minority Leader Jake Hummel said. “Any time you have someone that’s writing $1 million campaign checks and pretending that is not what influences you, that is a lie to Missouri voters.”
Current law allowed wealthy political activist Rex Sinquefield to write a $1 million check in 2014 to Republican candidate Bev Randles’ campaign for lieutenant governor.
Contribution limit supporters are trying to get a proposal on a ballot this year to set caps.
Associated Press writer Adam Aton contributed to this report.