Senate leader shepherding bill to reform lobbyist rules

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard on Thursday called on a Senate panel to advance his legislation that aims to add more transparency to the tactics used by lobbyists trying to influence legislation in the Statehouse.

The bill sponsored by the Joplin Republican would add a cooling-off period between the time lawmakers leave office and the time they can become lobbyists and require more disclosure on meals for legislators paid for by special interests.

“Last session, we had some lobbyists who paid for committee lunches on the same day they were presenting their priority bills,” Richard said.

It had become a practice in state politics for lobbyists to report meal expenses for the General Assembly without citing specific individuals who received the gifts.

Last fall, for example, a half-dozen lawmakers went to dinner with a group of lobbyists in New Orleans, but the $3,000 tab was attributed to the entire Legislature.

Richard’s measure would block lobbyists from reporting meals as if they were accepted by entire committees. Instead, reports would have to cite the lawmakers who accepted the gifts.

He would also ban representatives — working on behalf of industry, labor unions and education institutions, to name a few — from paying for a lawmaker’s out-of-state travel.

Richard said he recognized that his bill would only address a small part of the ethics reform debate but that he thought that was the only way changes could be passed.

“I know there’s more people who want to take bigger bites,” he said. “When we get to the point where these things are too heavy, it appears we can’t get anything passed.”

During his State of the State address on Wednesday night, Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon — who has refrained from accepting lobbyist gifts since being elected governor — called on the Legislature to address the issue.

“What good are we to the people who elected us if they can’t trust us to represent their best interests?” Nixon said. “We have the weakest ethics laws in the nation. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and you and I know it.”

Nixon said that without action on ethics reform, “the public’s confidence in us continues to erode.”

“No more excuses; let’s get a meaningful ethics reform bill to my desk,” he said, stopping short of offering any specific proposal that he might support.

Nobody testified for or against Richard’s bill during Thursday afternoon’s hearing. Only one witness appeared during the “informational purposes” portion of the public hearing. On stage sat the lobbyists’ lobbyist, Mike Reid, who represents the Missouri Society of Governmental Consultants. Reid said Richard’s legislation would add clarity to what gifts exactly they have to report.

“We want to show who we spend money on,” he said. “It’s the public’s right to know how we try to do our job.”

Richard said he will pass the bill out of committee next week and that it will go to the Senate floor afterward.

Over the past two years, lobbyists have spent nearly $2 million on meals, tickets and travel for the lawmakers they are paid to influence.

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