A major theme in the Missouri legislature during the recently completed session was ethics. Governor Eric Greitens set the tone when running a campaign which included a pledge to ban lobbyist gifts and end the culture of corruption in Jefferson City.
One of his first acts was an order banning executive branch employees from accepting lobbyist gifts. But Greitens has also steadfastly hidden behind “dark money” nonprofit groups. He’s refused to reveal the donors who financed nearly $2 million for his general election campaign and how much money contributors spent on his inauguration.
Like Greitens, lawmakers started the year focused on ethics. The first bill heard on the first day of the session was a measure to ban lobbyist gifts put forth by House Republican Justin Alferman of Hermann.
The measure allowed for a few exemptions such as flowers, plants and speaking fees. In a rare occurrence, the bill moved through committee on the same day.
It cleared the chamber in eight days, but stalled in a Senate committee without ever receiving a vote. Alferman says the reason ethics bills don’t advance in the legislature is strictly due to Senate failures.
“I don’t think anyone should question who the problem is” said Alferman. “We haven’t even seen a product leave the Senate chamber in three years.”
The upper chamber considered a lobbyist gift ban bill from Republican Senator Mike Kehoe of Jefferson City with a week left in the session. Like Alferman’s measure, it allowed for several exemptions.
On the chamber floor, GOP Senator Rob Shaaf attempted to attach an amendment to it called the “Dark Money Disclosure Act”. Debate lasted several hours as Schaaf was insistent that his provision, which would require non-profit groups to report donations, be included in the measure.
Fellow Republican Bob Onder of Lake St. Louis offered an amendment to nullify Schaaf’s offering by stripping the groups, known as 501(c)(4)’s, from oversight. The bill was ultimately set aside and never returned to the chamber floor.
Alferman expressed disgust with the Senate’s treatment of ethics legislation. “It’s just ridiculous. These individual look ridiculous talking about the right to take free stuff. They hide under the red herring of transparency, hide under the red herring of 501(c)(4)’s. ‘Oh, we can’t do one without the other’. It’s nonsense.”
Senator Schaaf, who was targeted with negative ads by Governor Greitens own non-profit late in the session, accused the governor numerous times of dealing in dark money.
Schaaf sponsored several measures the past session which addressed lobbyist gifts and non-disclosure of contributions. He‘s frustrated that only one of them even received a committee hearing.
“You know, I think that the number one issue for the people of Missouri is probably ethics and campaign finance reform” said Schaaf. “And all of my issues just get killed.”
Alferman thinks combining ethics items such as lobbyist gifts and non-profit 501c4 donations in one bill makes the legislation more difficult to pass.
“Unfortunately, 501(c)(4) stuff, which I think is an issue that needs to be addressed, I whole heartedly believe it needs to be addressed. I think they can be two separate issues. But it is obscuring the path forward on ethics reform.”
Alferman introduced a similar lobbyist gift ban bill in 2016 which died in the Senate. He’s vowed to file the legislation again next year.