Ethics reform proposals will be off to a quick start in the state legislature, but Democratic leaders aren’t saying what proposals need to pass to, in their minds, mean something is really accomplished.
Lawmakers in both parties and both chambers and Governor Jay Nixon (D), all say ethics reform is a priority. House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) said the first bills out of the House this session would propose updates to financial disclosures by politicians, stop legislators from becoming lobbyists until one year after leaving the General Assembly, ban lobbyist gifts to lawmakers, and deal with how a politician’s campaign committee is terminated when he or she leaves public service.
Richardson, who prefers that ethics issues be handled in individual bills rather than combined into one, said he expects those bills to be passed to the Senate quickly, and then sent to the governor. Those bills and several others are expected to be the subjects of a House committee hearing next week.
“Beyond that I don’t think that those first bills that are out of the House are going to be the end of the discussion on ethics,” said Richardson.
In the Senate, Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe (R-Jefferson City) said the first bill to reach the floor will be an ethics package proposed by Senator Bob Onder (R-Lake Saint Louis) that would keep lawmakers from becoming lobbyists for two years after leaving the General Assembly, require a public official who registers as a lobbyist to dissolve his or her campaign committees, ban gifts from lobbyists to lawmakers, and would not allow lawmakers who accept a board or commission appointment to receive compensation from that appointment until the expiration of the term of office to which that person was elected.
Several other issues have been referenced – chief among them for Democrats is campaign finance reform.
Governor Nixon said ethics legislation must not be “symbolic,” or “half-hearted.” He and Democrats in the legislature, though, would not define what reforms must pass to in their minds represent a genuine effort by the Republican majorities.
“As the session moves forward we will engage in a little more specific fashion than we have in the past on legislation to lay out where those lines are on bills that are moving through the process,” Nixon told reporters Tuesday.
“I am a little bit concerned that we’re not going to pass everything that we should pass,” said Senate Minority Leader Joe Keaveny (D-St. Louis), “but I think if we can make a constructive step we can keep expanding on it.”
“I think everybody, at least in the Senate, has a different feel for what priority [individual ethics issues] ought to be,” Keaveny added. “Some are adamant about campaign contribution limits, some are adamant about a gift ban, so what’s the bright line [definition], I’m not sure there is. It’s going to be a blend.”
House Minority Leader Jake Hummel (D-St. Louis City) said what must happen is ethics reform must, “fix this to the point where the public’s perception of elected officials and the legislature is greatly improved.”
“The reality is,” Hummel added, “we’ve got 190-plus elected officials here and the majority of them are very good people, on both sides of the aisle. We’ve got several bad eggs and that has to be fixed.”
Asked whether campaign finance reform would be considered, Richardson said such bills could be discussed after the initial set is dealt with.
Senate President Pro Tem Ron Richard (R-Joplin) said there has been discussion of that issue, “but you know the courts decided that’s a freedom of speech issue, too.”
Democrats are critical that ethics reform is receiving attention now, suggesting that it took a series of issues with campaign finance, and scandals last year involving interns, to bring it to the fore.
“The fact of the matter is this is the first time we’re going to actually be allowed to debate ethics in this state,” said Hummel. “Bills don’t get referred, they’re killed in committee, they’re not brought up for a vote on the floor, etcetera … things have finally gotten so bad that this has forced their hand.”
Nixon said the reason he spent a great deal of time talking about ethics during his conference with reporters Tuesday was, “this has been a summer … in which there’s been a whole lot of talk about ethics, and a lot of really good talk about ethics. A lot of people on both sides of the aisle saying that is the issue that’s front-and-center as we begin this session, and unfortunately I’ve seen that kind of talk before.”
“My point of what I’m saying here is it has to be real, it has to be enforceable, it has to be important, and it has to be understandable,” said Nixon. “I don’t want to give examples of how it could be weakened, but it’s pretty obvious to everybody how some of this stuff can be drafted around so that you have a title but not a real bill.”
“I never do anything symbolic. If I’m going to do something I get it done,” said Richard in response. “Or half-hearted. I don’t know what half-hearted means.”
The House bills expected to be referred to committee Thursday are HB 1395, HB 1452, HB 1474, HB 1572, HB 1573, HB 1574, HB 1575, HB 1633, HB 1669, HB 1766, HB 1773, HB 1829, and HB 1925. Senator Onder’s legislation is SB 643.