The Kansas City Star, Feb. 18
No more swanky dinners or free booze? Missouri lawmakers should ban lobbyist gifts
Give the Missouri Senate some credit: The right honorables are finally expressing interest in limiting lobbyist gifts.
But while the progress is noteworthy, it isn’t enough. Right now is the time to strike and take an even bigger step toward wiping out lobbyist gifts once and for all. For the third year in a row, the Missouri House has done exactly that, acting with breathtaking speed for a legislative body with 163 members.
The House vote this year was 134-12 in favor of reform.
The man behind the House legislation, state Rep. Justin Alferman, a Hermann Republican, has called his push for a ban on most lobbyist gifts a dramatic switch in the way business is conducted in Jefferson City. He’s said something else that’s important here: Missourians want change, and they’re calling for it loudly.
Put the idea to a public vote, and it would pass with 80 percent backing. After all, the very idea of lobbyists currying favor with public servants via swanky dinners, free booze and concert tickets is loathsome. Average citizens don’t do that.
Don’t underestimate what a big deal this is. In the first six months of 2017, lawmakers and their staffs received $347,368 in gifts, The Star reported last year. That averaged out to $1,760 per lawmaker.
Now, though, comes the tough part, and that’s the Missouri Senate’s consideration. The upper chamber has killed gift crackdowns in recent sessions. This year, the Senate is showing some willingness to at least consider something, and that’s the progress mentioned above.
Senate Majority Leader Mike Kehoe is sponsoring his chamber’s version of the bill. Kehoe has softened the blow for his members by proposing a limit of no more than $40 worth of gifts a day. That remains a nice bonus for members on top of their annual salary and per diem pay of $113 a day.
The Jefferson City Republican has also proposed that lawmakers reimburse lobbyists for any gift valued at more than $40. And he’s said legislators can’t accept tickets to an event unless the lobbyist is present.
Again, this is far from perfect but better than the current system of no limit at all. Still, it wouldn’t combat the debilitating perception for the ethics-challenged General Assembly that its members are entitled to special favors just because they’re lawmakers. That’s precisely the wrong message.
If both chambers agree that it’s time to crack down on gifts, then why not go all the way? There’s beauty is simplicity when it comes to ethics rules, but Missouri continues to favor exceptions. Even the House version would permit lobbyists to host catered events with free food if all members of the legislature are invited.
Critics call that a significant loophole.
The Senate may be showing more interest in limiting gifts because of outside pressure. An initiative petition effort underway known as Clean Missouri would ban any gift valued at more than $5, and it would do other things, too, such as require lawmakers to wait at least two years before becoming lobbyists.
Missouri voters have demonstrated unbridled eagerness when it comes to passing tough ethics laws. They’re way ahead of lawmakers on this issue. The General Assembly should try to catch up this session.
The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Feb. 18
Missouri’s rural way of life threatened by more than wind power
Missouri is stifling efforts to bring wind power sweeping down the plains from Kansas to Indiana and into the grid beyond. State Public Service Commission regulators have invoked a controversial court ruling that says wind transmission lines must be approved by each individual county along their path.
The ruling gives some of the state’s least populated counties authority to disrupt plans for power distribution on a regional, or even broader, scale. The $2.2 billion line would help make the nation less dependent on dirty, coal-fired power plants and provide a clean, renewable energy source.
Missouri has been for years the only one of four states to withhold approval for the 780-mile Grain Belt Express overhead transmission line. A Houston-based company is developing the Clean Line Energy project, which regulators acknowledge is “in the public interest” and could save electric customers in some Missouri cities millions of dollars annually.
Those claims have not stopped landowners along parts of the line from objecting to the use of eminent domain to build transmission towers on their property. While the Grain Belt Express line has hit one snag after another trying to win regulatory approval, the PSC last month gave permission to an Ameren subsidiary to proceed with its $250 million, 100-mile Mark Twain Transmission Project in northeast Missouri.
The subsidiary, Ameren Transmission Co. of Illinois, gained local approval from the counties along its path in September. The PSC said it would pass through Marion, Knox, Adair, Schuyler and Lewis counties, “mostly via existing transmission easements.”
The Grain Belt Express plan is more ambitious. It would cross the northern part of the state from St. Joseph on the west to a terminus between Bowling Green and Hannibal on the east. It would cross Buchanan, Clinton, Caldwell, Carroll, Chariton, Randolph, Monroe and Ralls counties.
Opponents from the group Block Grain Belt Express - Missouri warn that the project would not bring cheap clean energy or jobs to their communities. They say the company is offering “empty claims and false promises,” when their intent is to force property owners to sell easements or have their land condemned through eminent domain.
Rural property owners fear that the lines will displace communities, disrupt farm operations and bring economic disaster for some while others get wealthy. It’s easy to understand why farmers may not want wind turbines whipping the air over their land, but more is at stake than picturesque farms and a long-valued way of life.
The Earth is in the grip of global warming, and the nation’s power sector is the largest source of carbon emissions contributing to the problem. Working together to harness renewable energy rather than blocking progress will go a long way in guaranteeing that the rural way of life doesn’t change.
The St. Joseph News-Press, Feb. 17
Utility rates due a reset
A proposal advancing in Missouri offers the state’s biggest electric utilities something they desperately want and ratepayers something they very much need.
After years of debate, this compromise has found traction in the state Senate, where it passed last week by a 25-6 vote. Just two Democrats and four Republicans - including Sen. Rob Schaaf of St. Joseph - voted no.
As SB 564 moves to the House, partisans on both sides of the aisle pledge to continue to seek modifications that protect the interests of ratepayers. That’s the right approach - as long as everyone understands ultimately this measure is a benefit for the state and needs to be enacted.
“Historically, low energy costs have been a tremendous advantage to the Missouri economy and workers,” says Rep. T.J. Berry, R-Kearney. “But every year policymakers fail to act, rates rise and we lose more of that economic benefit … This is the year Missouri must cap electric rates, while encouraging efforts to make our energy grid smarter and more secure.”
The bill affects nearly 2 million customers served by the investor-owned utilities of Ameren Corp., Kansas City Power & Light Co. and The Empire Electric District, which together serve about two-thirds of electric customers statewide.
The legislation would revamp and streamline how electricity rates are set - including capping increases at 2.85 to 3 percent annually - in exchange for a commitment from the utilities to invest in upgrading the state’s electrical grid.
By comparison, from 2007 through 2016 rates charged by all investor-owned utilities in Missouri rose by an annual average of 5.2 percent.
Opponents worry the measure weakens oversight by the state’s Public Service Commission and eventually could lead to higher rates. Proponents dispute both claims, saying consumers will be shielded from large, unpredictable rate increases and the electrical grid upgrades will spur job growth and improve reliability.
There is no mistaking the forces at work here:
Electricity usage declined in Missouri over the past decade as customers adopted greater conservation measures. Lower demand has put pressure on the utilities that are simultaneously trying to satisfy shareholders’ profit expectations and upgrade their infrastructure important to consumers and businesses.
At the same time, Missouri ratepayers have posted a dubious distinction. Federal data show electric rates in the state have risen faster than all but four other states over the past decade. And everyone is familiar with the sharp, unpredictable rate spikes we have experienced.
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