You can measure the mettle of the Missouri Legislature this year on one issue — ethics reform.
If the Legislature is serious about being accountable to the people it serves it will pass meaningful ethics and campaign finance reforms.
If the Legislature cares about protecting its reputation and its image it will make ethics reform its top priority.
There is no disputing the fact that Missouri has some of the most lax ethic rules in the nation. Secretary of State Jason Kander went a step forward this week saying we have the worst campaign finance and ethics laws in the entire country.
Kander wasn’t exaggerating.
He was basing his assertion on the fact that Missouri is the only state with no campaign contribution limits, no lobbyist gift limits and no revolving-door policy preventing lawmakers from becoming lobbyists immediately after leaving office.
Ask yourself, does that reflect the sensibilities of our state? Hardly. Maybe in New Jersey, Louisiana or Illinois. Actually that’s unfair to those states which all have tougher ethics rules than the Show-Me State.
What we have in Missouri is a political system where a handful of wealthy individuals and organizations with deep pockets are writing larger and larger checks to politicians and where lobbyists are increasingly viewed as running state government.
And the problem is getting worse.
Even the politicians who benefit from the system concede as much. Our laissez-faire ethics rules have created a vacuum that mega-donors like Rex Sinquefield, a retired financier from Westphalia, are willing to stuff with five- and six-figure checks.
In just the last five years, Sinquefield has made 576 donations — 180 to candidates and 396 to committees — totaling $28,083,480. That is a jaw-dropping number by any standard.
Defenders of our present system like to point out that while our state doesn’t have any restrictions on campaign contributions we do have a system that favors full disclosure. The theory is that at least we know who is giving to who.
But that’s not really the case in all circumstances. That’s because lobbyists and others can wine and dine or give to specific groups or committees. The name of the individual politician who received the meal or other benefit is not disclosed on ethics reports.
Another defense of the system we’ve heard from politicians over the years is that they can’t be bought for a simple meal or tickets to a sporting event or a trip. They have too much integrity to be bought off that easily. Perhaps, but can they be influenced for $100,000? Where does it end?
Cynics say when it comes to money, influence, and power in state government, interest groups and big-money donors will find ways around just about any limit.
That doesn’t have to be the case if ethics laws were passed with some real teeth in them — the kind that Secretary of State Jason Kander proposed earlier this week.
Kander called them the most comprehensive campaign finance and ethics reform proposals ever considered in our state.
He said his proposal, which contains 57 changes to Missouri ethics and campaign laws, was designed to lift Missouri from being the nation’s worst to its best in terms of governmental ethics rules.
Kander’s proposal, which is being sponsored by Rep. Kevin McManus, D-Kansas City, would cap individual campaign contributions in each election cycle to $2,600 to candidates for statewide office
It also bans the laundering of political contributions and includes, for the first time, a provision making it illegal to take steps meant to get around campaign contribution limits. Those found to have violated these provisions would be subject to substantial financial penalties, and repeat offenders could be sent to prison.
The legislation would also prohibit lawmakers from becoming lobbyists until three years after they leave office and not allow them to become paid political consultants until they’ve been out of office for a year.
More importantly, the Missouri Ethics Commission would gain new powers to enforce campaign finance laws and penalties for offenders would be steeper. Paid political consultants would also be required to register with the commission, a practice currently only performed by lobbyists according to the Associated Press.
Some have already judged Kander’s plan as too ambitious and unrealistic. Others accuse the state’s top election official of grandstanding and crusading.
We disagree. The Legislature should embrace Kander’s reform package for what it is: long overdue, commonsense, Missouri-inspired values.
The government belongs to the people, not lobbyists, the wealthy or the special interests. Our ethic laws should inspire accountability, not erode trust.
Some other ethic reform bills have been filed, including some by Republicans. All seek to restore some sensibility to a political system that is seriously out of whack.
The question that remains is whether the Legislature will summon the courage to do what’s right or will it be politics as usual?