- Associated Press - Wednesday, February 4, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - State senators on Wednesday gave initial approval to strengthening ethics laws in Missouri, the only state with the trio of unlimited campaign contributions, no limits on gifts from lobbyists and no restrictions against state lawmakers going into lobbying as soon as they leave public office.

The bill by Senate Majority Leader Ron Richard, a Joplin Republican, is the first ethics bill to gain approval in either chamber this session. It begins to deal with lobbyist gifts and the revolving door of employment after public service, but it does nothing to limit campaign contributions.

The legislation would increase public reporting on gifts to legislators, ban lawmakers from becoming lobbyists until at least two years after they leave office and ban out-of-state trips paid for by lobbyists.

The bill needs a second Senate vote to go to the House, which has been hearing public testimony on its own package of ethics proposals.

Bills to beef up ethics laws have been introduced with little success in previous sessions. But Republican and Democratic legislative leaders both have placed a higher priority on the proposals this year.

In response to media coverage and criticism from Democrats, Republican House Speaker John Diehl already also has taken some steps on his own, including banning lobbyist-supplied meals during House committee hearings.

That followed media reports about a House Telecommunications Committee hearing held at a country club in January, with dinner paid for by the Missouri Telecommunications Industry Association.

Attention on ethics also increased when The New York Times reported in October that Missouri Attorney General Chris Koster was among state attorneys general influenced by lobbyist perks and contributions from companies facing potential state litigation.

Richard’s bill does not address statewide elected officials except to require they take an hour of ethics training along with other political officials.

Political scientists and even some lawmakers have questioned how far the Legislature is willing to go to revamp ethics laws. But at least some changes seem more likely this session than last, said George Connor, head of Missouri State University’s political science department.

“These issues have been around for a hundred years or more,” Connor said. “This is a small portion of ethics reform, but I think it’s a meaningful portion of ethics reform.”

Connor said proposals to limit campaign contributions likely won’t make it into law this session.

“I don’t see how we can have ethics reform without talking about campaign contributions limits,” Republican Sen. David Pearce of Warrensburg said to lawmakers Wednesday.

Opponents of contribution limits - which lawmakers stripped in 2008 - instead argue that increased transparency is the best way to prevent corruption.

“It’s not a perfect system, by no means,” Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said Wednesday. “But to say that it worked before is a lie. It did not work before.”

Richard’s bill doesn’t place limits on the amount candidates can take from donors, but debate on Richard’s bill showed it will face challenges even without that.

Some senators of both parties expressed reluctance to give up some of the perks that have been allowed for years as long as they’re publicly reported. The current version of Richard’s bill does not restrict what lobbyists can give lawmakers.

Democratic Sen. Jamilah Nasheed of St. Louis proposed an amendment Tuesday to ban elected officials from accepting sports and music tickets paid for by lobbyists. It failed 20-13.

University City Democrat Sen. Maria Chappelle-Nadal said she encourages tickets or other gifts as rewards for unpaid volunteers working in her office, and Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Springfield, said opportunities to make poor decisions give lawmakers the chance to prove their moral integrity.

Others are turning to voters to take action.

The Missouri Secretary of State’s office already has approved two initiative petitions that would establish campaign contribution limits for circulation. If enough registered voters sign the petitions, they will be added to the ballot in 2016.

Sen. Rob Schaaf, R-St. Joseph, on Tuesday introduced a measure that would amend the state constitution to limit campaign contributions and create a system similar to public financing of candidates. He said that could cut down on a sense of obligation some feel to at least entertain policy suggestions from big donors.

But Schaaf acknowledged his measure might not pass the Legislature and said he has been working with advocacy groups who could use his proposal as a template for another ballot initiative.

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Ethics bill is SB 11.

Online:

Senate: http://www.senate.mo.gov

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Follow Summer Ballentine at https://twitter.com/esballentine

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