Well, the legislature passed four ethics bills this year, didn’t it?
Missouri went into this legislative session as the only state that did not limit lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, had no cooling-off period before legislators could return to the halls to lobby former colleagues, and no limits on campaign contributions.
One out of three ain’t bad, as somebody who got a “D” in elementary school English might have said. But while the legislature deserves a little credit for passing four ethics bills this year, they were all singles. Lawmakers hardly swung for the fences. They didn’t strike out, certainly, but they didn’t hit much more than bloop singles. We still don’t have limits on lobbyist gifts and the last thing in the world the powers that be in the legislature wanted to do this election year was address campaign contribution limits.
But they can campaign on how they cleaned up government. They won’t campaign on the idea that they only used a whisk broom, however.
The bills passed this year say legislators have to wait six months from the end of their terms before they can become lobbyists. That means they can’t represent you and me at the capitol during the next legislative session (assuming you and I are the ones who would hire them; there are plenty of others who might). But by the time the veto session rolls around in September, 2017, those whose terms run out in January can be renewing old acquaintances or augmenting the lobbyist corps putting on the pressure for veto overrides, or laying the groundwork for the 2018 session. And it’s likely that a majority of those with whom they served will still be around, particularly those who will be leaders by then.
Lawmakers also decided they should not be allowed to hire fellow lawmakers as paid political consultants, a bill triggered by one incident a couple of years ago. It’s okay legislation but this is hardly a political cancer cure.
Another bill requires candidate campaign finance reports to be filed electronically with the state ethics commission. Some candidates have utilized a provision in existing law to escape filing with the state by filing with local election authorities. This bill closes the least shortcoming in the current campaign finance law that eliminated all campaign donation limits. When that bill was passed, the sponsor said eliminating limits was just fine as long as there was proper reporting of donations. But the legislature ignored the T. Rex in the room this year when it did not require non-profit political action committees, the Super PACs, to report to the ethics commission who was providing them with money that is often used to bludgeon candidates targeted by big donors who don’t want anybody to know they are behind the so-called dark money in politics today. And they didn’t reinstate any limits on direct donations to candidates or to parties.
The fourth one says former office-holders can’t invest leftover campaign funds and must dissolve their campaign committees before they can become lobbyists six months after leaving office. An office-holder who has a large pot of leftover campaign money cannot invest it and use the return on the investment to fund other candidates, for example.
Bloop singles that fall between the shortstop and the left fielder. Why aren’t they at least line drives?
Read the bills: HB1983, HB1979, HB2203, and HB1474. Look for any penalty provisions.
We’ll save you the drudgery. Folks, there are no penalties in any of these bills. They seem to be toothless.
If Representative Furd’s term ends with the swearing-in of his successor and now-former Representative Furd shows up in the hallway an hour later lobbying on behalf of the Missouri Association of Left-handed Trombonists while still having $43.92 in his campaign account, what will happen? Will legislators refuse to let him buy them dinners (the bill limiting lobbyist gifts failed this year, you recall)? Will Thelonious Furd—friends will now call him “Thel” instead of “The gentleman from Melvin County”—be shunned and find himself standing alone in a third floor alcove? Will former colleagues block his text messages on the cell phones they might check while debating whether music stores should be able to refuse to sell mouthpieces to gay musicians because of a sincerely held belief? Will somebody be able to get a court order that says he has to stand in the Capitol yard?
Was the Missouri Ethics Commission given any authority to write rules dealing with the return of Thel? Not in this bill.
If Thel decides he wants to be a campaign consultant for a sitting representative with dreams of glory as Melvin County Administrator, is there a penalty for either him or his former colleague? We didn’t see one.
And if he files a report with his county clerk showing that he still has $43.92 instead of filing it with the ethics commission, what severe penalty does he face? Ah! There he might be in some trouble because the ethics commission can fine people for not filing proper campaign finance reports and THIS new law appears to put him under that jurisdiction.
All of this speculation comes from a common citizen living on a quiet street in Jefferson City who used to be able to walk over to the sponsors of these bills and check the teeth in any such propositions. There might be some provisions in other sections of the statutes that would be the teeth for these bills but, from this lofty perch it seem the best we can we can say to most of this year’s ethics legislation is, “Nice gums.”