Jefferson City still a cesspool

Remember when legislators acted like they were serious about ethics reform earlier this year? Sadly, our skeptism about real reform being enacted was accurate.

Yesterday exemplified this, with a lunch sponsored by a long list of special interest groups. Virginia Young for the Post-Dispatch reports:

Hungry legislators, staffers, lobbyists and onlookers converged outside Sen. Kiki Curls’ office at noon Tuesday to help themselves to platefuls of ribs, chicken and sausage served up by the famed Gates Bar-B-Q.

 

Lobbyists paid for the feed, which drew a line that wrapped around the Senate side of the Capitol. Curls, whose Kansas City district includes Gates’ headquarters, hosted the event, as her Senate predecessors did each spring before her.

 

The meal is among the most popular ones during the 4½-month Missouri legislative session, but it is far from unusual.

 

For lawmakers, a typical day in the Capitol might start with bagels in the Rotunda, include a picnic or fish fry on the lawn at noon, continue with a cupcake from a state university at midday and conclude with a buffet reception at a local hotel, hosted by credit unions or soybean farmers or any of a number of other groups with a stake in legislation.

 

Missouri imposes no limits on lobbyist-provided meals or gifts. And that appears unlikely to change when the legislative session ends at 6 p.m. Friday.

 

An ethics bill has languished in a House-Senate conference committee since early April. The sticking point: whether to impose a $25 cap on individual meals, tickets and trips that legislators receive from lobbyists.

Sponsor of the bill, Sen. Ron Richard (R-Joplin) fears a $25 cap could be circumvented and believes lobbyists should be prevented from assigning expenditures to committees instead of individual legislators.

Sen. Scott Sifton, D-south St. Louis County, wants to ban lobbyist-provided gifts altogether.

 

Sifton let the Post-Dispatch collect all the invitations he received this year. Since January, the senator has been asked to attend at least 135 free meals, ballgames and other entertainment events.

 

The offers came from pilots, dentists, firefighters, pawnbrokers, motorcyclists, water districts, private colleges, community colleges, biotechnology companies, pharmacists, labor unions, interior designers, insurance agents, accountants, veterans, sheltered workshops, podiatrists, retired teachers, trial attorneys, marriage and family therapists and the Missouri Press Association, among others.

 

He turned them all down.

 

“Taxpayers are already reimbursing us for meals,” Sifton said, referring to the $103.20 daily expense allowance that legislators receive to cover lodging and meals in the Capitol. “I think it’s wrong for legislators to pocket that money rather than use it for its intended purpose.”

 

Gifts he rejected included a tin of cinnamon rolls, luxury suites at Blues games, “one of the hottest craft beers” (Bur Oak), which was offered at an Ameren Missouri reception, and barbecue from Pappy’s Smokehouse, courtesy of the St. Louis Regional Chamber.

 

There was a Senate crab boil thrown by lobbyist Ginger Steinmetz, a “cooking with beer” demonstration by Missouri Beer Wholesalers, wine-tastings in senators’ offices and a corned beef and cabbage lunch hosted by Express Scripts on St. Patrick’s Day.

 

Whether a sandwich buys a vote isn’t the question, said Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph.

 

“You will at least feel some goodwill toward the guy after he pays your way,” said Schaaf, who advocates a wide-ranging ethics proposal. “The rule is, ‘You dance with the one who brung you.’”

Sen. Paul LeVota (D-Independence) also said limiting gifts would be "a half-step forward."

“We have a huge problem with ethics,” LeVota said. “The people of Missouri wonder why we’re allowed to have unlimited lobbyists’ gifts, why we’re allowed to have unlimited campaign contributions.”

With three days left in this session, it seems unlikely that even this small baby step ethics reform proposal will be finalized by its conference committee.

So here we are again, another session and no real ethics reforms to speak of. And Jefferson City remains a cesspool.

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