State lawmakers face new ethics regulations beginning this weekend. Some lawmakers say the changes made during the legislative session don’t go far enough.
Though touted as a high priority in both the Senate and the House, SB844 nearly became a victim of harsh partisan politics in the House. Majority Republicans in the House drastically changed the bill after Democrats used a parliamentary procedure in an effort to force it to the floor for debate. Tensions ran high the last weeks of the session, calming enough in the end to approve a bill.
“Quite frankly, I didn’t think the bill went far enough if we want to really talk about ethics reform,” says Sen. Jim Lembke, a Republican from St. Louis.
Lembke says the bill that finally emerged this year will make financing more transparent, will end sham committee-to-committee campaign funding and make other positive changes. But, he says, it didn’t address the now common practice of former legislators becoming Capitol lobbyists.
“Now, I think that in the process of term limits, that may be difficult to get through, especially the Senate,” says Lembke. “In that if you’ve got a third of the senators leaving every two years, that might be looking for a job someplace, it might be difficult to get that passed.”
Ethics reform became the cry at the beginning of the legislative session as the legislature reeled from numerous problems among its members. Former Sen. Jeff Smith, a Democrat from St. Louis, began the New Year by reporting to a federal prison in Kentucky. Smith lied to federal election authorities about his involvement in a political attack against St. Louis area Congressman Russ Carnahan during their 2004 Democratic congressional primary race. Former state Rep. Steve Brown, a fellow St. Louis Democrat, was placed on two years’ probation for helping Smith in the smear campaign against Carnahan. Former Rep. Talibdin “T.D.” El-Amin, a St. Louis Democrat, was sentenced to a year-and-a-half in prison for bribery. El-Amin has also been ordered to pay $2,100 in restitution. In addition, former Speaker Rod Jetton, a Republican from Marble Hill, pleaded not guilty to charges he assaulted a woman during an evening of rough sex at her Sikeston home November 15th.
Democrats wanted to re-instate campaign contribution limits. State lawmakers removed campaign contribution limits in 2008 after having to adjust to a State Supreme Court ruling that overturned a similar attempt in 2006. Missouri voters in 1994 approved limiting contributions to statewide candidates to $1,350 per election, $675 to Senate candidates and $325 to House candidates. The limits had no effect on federal candidates.
Opponents of limits say they aren’t effective, that campaigns merely found ways to get around them. They claim new reporting provisions make contributions more transparent, which they contend is more important that limits.
Rep. Mary Still, a Democrat from Columbia, says to truly be called ethics reform, the bill needed to address contribution limits.
“When you can give $10,000 to a candidate, that’s just not right,” Still says. “The people of Missouri voted on this. They agree it’s not right. The legislature overturned that and then, this year we tried to get the contribution limits enacted and we failed.”