- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri’s legislative leaders have proclaimed 2015 as the year they’ll rein in lavish gifts from lobbyists and increase accountability for unchecked campaign donations.

But even as lawmakers make a renewed push for ethics bills that have met little success in previous sessions, political scientists question how much will actually change.

“Coming up with real, meaningful ethics reform that could get majority support in both the House and Senate is just unlikely,” according to Missouri State University’s George Conner, who heads the political science department. Marginal reforms could pass, he said, but none addressing “the root of the problem of money in Missouri politics.”

State Rep. Jay Barnes, a Jefferson City Republican, has called the state’s ethics laws “the weakest in the country,” and other lawmakers from both parties have said more needs to be done.

The momentum follows an October article in The New York Times claiming state Attorney General Chris Koster is one of many across the country influenced by lobbyist gifts and donations from companies facing lawsuits from his office. Ethics also popped up during the November elections, when Missouri’s largest political donor, Rex Sinquefield, and Democratic U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill each funneled hundreds of thousands of dollars to candidates and causes.

Currently in Missouri, contributors can funnel an endless amount of cash to candidates and political committees as long as it’s reported publicly. And there are no limits on how much lobbyists can spend on gifts, meals and trips for public officials. Lawmakers can even switch to lobbying as soon as they leave office.

At least 28 bills have been filed so far to address concerns - with proposals ranging from capping campaign donations, “cooling-off” periods after leaving office and limits or bans on lobbyists paying for legislators’ hotels and out-of-state trips.

But elected officials have promised change for years with little success: Bills introduced in the past two sessions rarely made it out of committee, and some didn’t even receive a hearing. It’ll take a “major scandal” to enact change, says University of Missouri-Columbia political science professor Peverill Squire.

Gov. Jay Nixon threatened in late 2013 to push a ballot initiative on campaign contributions if lawmakers failed to pass legislation with new limits and again called for reform during his 2014 State of the State address. Spokesman Scott Holste said Nixon in 2015 will again take “a firm position on the need for reform in Missouri’s campaign contribution law.”

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey said partisan politics also decreases the chances of ethics bills passing.

Democrats want to reinstate campaign contributions limits, which were repealed in 2008. But many Republicans say the amount of money donors give isn’t a problem as long as that information is posted publicly.

“Back when we had limits, you didn’t really stop the flow of money into campaigns,” said Rep. Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, who will be the House majority leader when the 2015 legislative session begins Wednesday. “You really just obfuscated the source of it.”

Proposed bans or limits on lobbyist gifts would help, Conner said, but attacking the influence of money in politics is less effective if done in bits and pieces.

Ballot initiatives that come from citizens have a better chance of success, Connor and Squire noted. To that end, an omnibus initiative to amend the Missouri Constitution to limit campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts has been approved for circulation, and another is open for public comment.

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Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report. Follow Summer Ballentine at: https://twitter.com/esballentine

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