- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - A key committee chairman expressed confidence Monday that Missouri legislators will finally vote to strengthen the state’s ethics laws this session.

Government Oversight and Accountability Chairman Jay Barnes, R-Jefferson City, wants to limit the gifts lobbyists can accept and require lawmakers go through a “cooling off” period before entering the lobbying profession. But Barnes said often ethics bills with too many pieces fail, so he’s determined to pursue a more piecemeal approach this time.

During a hearing Monday, committee members and lobbyists expressed some concerns with technical aspects of the bills at the hearing, although they largely agreed they supported the underlying goals.

Among the proposals Barnes introduced is a bill that would force legislators to wait one year before registering to lobby their former colleagues or local governments. A similar proposal has garnered support from Senate Republican leaders.

Barnes said there were some instances where legislators went on to lobby and there was no impropriety and others where colleagues thought there might have been.

“In every one of those cases - to the general public - there is certainly the appearance of impropriety,” Barnes said. “All they see is representative X went to work for lobbying organization Y and that doesn’t look right and sometimes it isn’t right.”

Thirty-two states have laws imposing some type of waiting period before legislators can return as lobbyists after they leave office, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In Missouri, former legislators often return to Jefferson City as lobbyists.

Jeanette Mott Oxford, a former representative who now serves as the lobbyist for the social welfare group Empower Missouri, said she was worried that such a period might deter lawmakers who wanted to continue advocating for causes they’d supported long before being elected to the General Assembly.

“I feel like a lot of the problem is the other trappings of lobbying rather than whether you’ve served with someone,” she said, noting that limits on campaign contributions should also be reinstated.

None of the bills would impose caps on how much individuals or groups can contribute to candidates. Missouri is one of six states that have no limits on contributions from any source, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Barnes said the committee would hold hearings on contribution limits. However, he said big contributors would likely be able to find ways around any limits and that the better path was to increase transparency.

Lawmakers and lobbyists also raised questions about a proposal to cap gifts from lobbyists at $30. Oxford said lobbyists may be able to give hundreds of $30 gifts. Mike Reid, who lobbies for the Missouri Society of Governmental Consultants, said it was not clear whether the limit was per year, per lobbyist or per organization.

Other bills discussed included one requiring lobbyists to report out-of-state spending on local and state elected officials within 14 days. Lobbyists currently report their gifts to lawmakers on a monthly basis. Another measure would require quicker reporting of contributions over $500 for current lawmakers, statewide officers and candidates for those positions. The current threshold requiring a filing within 48 hours is $5,000 for those individuals or committees.

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