- Associated Press - Saturday, June 13, 2015

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - During Missouri’s legislative session, a landlord worked to change rental policy, farmers pushed agricultural legislation and a grocery association official pushed a bill that would prevent communities from banning environmentally costly plastic bags.

Those are just some of the examples in which lawmakers championed legislation benefiting the industries in which they work, and it’s a fairly common practice in the part-time Legislature, where many members hold private-sector jobs to supplement their roughly $36,000 annual salaries.

The dual roles can create the appearance of a conflict of interest. But some lawmakers contend that their private-sector expertise also leads to better policymaking.

Sen. Mike Parson, a Bolivar Republican who is running for governor in 2016, has sponsored bills related to cattle ranching. He owns 48 acres of farmland and a cattle and calf operation near his home, according to personal financial disclosure documents.

A new law backed by Parson, who is a member of the Missouri Cattlemen’s Association, would allow trucks to carry heavier loads of livestock on some Missouri roads, which could reduce costs for transporting the animals on multiple trucks or trips. State transportation officials warned that the heavier loads would damage Missouri’s already strained roads.

“I’ve been a farmer all my life, so naturally I’m going to be supportive of agriculture,” said Parson, who added that he doesn’t see a conflict of interest. “But I don’t see anything that’s giving an advantage to any owner.”

Richard Reuben, a University of Missouri-Columbia law professor, cautioned that lawmakers need to ensure their work passes the “smell test.”

“Obviously, particular industries are going to benefit through the course of interest-based legislation,” Reuben said. “But the idea is that even within that, it’s the larger public that’s going to benefit.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Gary Cross - a Republican from Lee’s Summit who rents out houses and is a member of the Mid-America Association of Real Estate Investors - has sponsored rental bills, including a law signed last year that made it easier to evict the guests of tenants. The group’s website describes him as an advocate for the industry and “a landlord like many of you.”

Cross denied that there is a conflict with legislation he introduces, and said “it may not affect me at all.”

“How many accountants introduce legislation regarding their background or their career?” Cross said. “How many schoolteachers get involved in education?”

Rep. Dan Shaul, an Imperial Republican and the state director of the Missouri Grocers Association, sponsored legislation sent to the governor that would ensure that stores can keep offering customers plastic bags by preventing communities from banning them. He said the bill would give grocers and consumers options.

Plastic bags costs about a cent per bag, while paper bags cost from 5 to 7 cents per bag, according to the American Progressive Bag Alliance, an industry group that opposes bans and taxes on plastic bags.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, only about 12 percent of plastic bags, wraps and sacks that were thrown away was recycled.

Lawmakers’ outside experience also bleeds into legislation in other ways. Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, was involved in negotiations that resulted in three Kansas City-area school districts being carved out from a bill to allow the expansion of charter schools. Those include Center School District, where Holsman’s wife works. He has said that did not influence him.

Legislative leaders generally defend the overlap of public and private-sector interests. House Speaker Todd Richardson, R-Poplar Bluff, said lawmakers need to follow conflict-of-interest rules, which ban members from voting on bills with which they have a “direct personal or pecuniary interest.” But he said it’s “entirely appropriate” for lawmakers to use their experience in legislation.

“If we had a situation where we said every farmer in the Missouri House can’t consider agriculture policy or set agriculture policy, that would be bad for the state,” Richardson said.

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Follow Summer Ballentine at https://twitter.com/esballentine and Marie French at https://twitter.com/m_jfrench

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