- Associated Press - Sunday, January 3, 2016

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Missouri lawmakers in 2016 will again try to rein in state ethics laws that are some of the loosest in the nation, this year against a backdrop of allegations of inappropriate actions toward interns by former legislators that some say added to public mistrust of the Legislature.

While legislators most years push for stricter policies with little success, supporters say the shadow lingering over the Capitol after the resignation of two lawmakers in 2015 could mean proposals finally become law in the session beginning Wednesday.

“The issues involving ethics reform are teed up for this legislative session,” Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon said. “You’ve got folks talking about these, putting bills in, in the most constructive way that I’ve seen in seven years.”

Missouri is the only state with loose laws in three areas often described as “ethics” rules: no restrictions on contributions to political candidates, no ban on lawmakers immediately becoming lobbyists after leaving public office and no limits on lobbyist-bought gifts and meals for elected officials.

More than a dozen pre-filed bills would change that. Several would clamp down on the revolving legislature-lobbyist door and money in politics, as well as impose more reporting requirements and ban lawmakers from smoking and drinking in the Capitol in most circumstances. One proposal would require lawmakers to close out their campaign coffers before becoming lobbyists.

Measures to cap campaign contributions appear less likely to pass than other measures.

“Clearly you’d like to have something done in the campaign-finance arena,” Nixon said, adding that he hopes discussions on other ethics matters will spark conversations about capping donations.

Majority Floor Leader Mike Kehoe, R-Jefferson City, said such a proposal would be “tough” to pass during an election year.

GOP House Speaker Todd Richardson and Kehoe said the strategy is to focus on passing single-issue bills rather than an all-encompassing ethics package. The idea is that if there’s disagreement about one proposal, others with more support could still move forward and would have a better chance of becoming law.

Both tactics - many smaller bills or a single measure that addresses multiple aspects of ethics policy - have failed repeatedly to pass in Missouri. Measures to ban lobbyist gifts and close the revolving door span back to at least 2005. The Legislature in 2008 repealed campaign contribution limits.

Lawmakers’ attempts to change ethics policy this past year centered on a single proposal that failed in the last days of the session when the House fell into disarray following claims that former Republican Speaker John Diehl exchanged sexual text messages with a Capitol intern.

Diehl, R-Town and Country, resigned on the last day of session after admitting to the texts.

Months later Democratic Sen. Paul LeVota, of Independence, left office after one intern claimed LeVota sexually harassed her, which spurred another to come forward with similar allegations. LeVota denied the claims.

Richardson, of Poplar Bluff, named changing the culture in the Capitol as a top priority when he succeeded Diehl. A recent rule change means all House members and staff for the first time are required to take sexual harassment training every year.

But Richardson and others have repeatedly said more needs to be done to repair the damaged perception of the Legislature. He said he plans to refer every ethics bill to a committee for review at his first opportunity Thursday.

“What we have seen is a need to improve the overall environment and climate in Jefferson City,” Richardson said. “We’re going to be willing to tackle anything that we think could improve that environment and create the kind of Legislature that the public expects and they should be entitled to.”

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Associated Press writer David A. Lieb contributed to this report.

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