Ethics reform dealt a major setback
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Ethics reform dealt a major setback

Date: April 26, 2010
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB 577

JEFFERSON CITY - Ethics reform legislation was dealt a significant blow on Monday night, when the House Rules Committee voted to block the legislation from reaching the full House.

The committee voted along party lines, 7-4, to send the amended reform bill back to the House Ethics Reform Committee, which drafted the legislation with the support of all 12 of its members. At issue were the bill's $5,000 cap on individual campaign contributions, with some Republicans also complaining it does not restrict the executive branch enough.

Some of the Republicans who voted against it, including one who had championed reform all session, said the bill could still pass the full House before the May 14 deadline. Democrats disagreed.

"It's dead," Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart, said of the legislation. He said Republicans who believed the legislation could make its way through two committees, the House floor and a conference committee with the Senate in the next three weeks were being dishonest.

"We got way too much to deal with in the next three weeks to expect that this will come back up again," he said.

Majority Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, who sponsored a piece of ethics legislation this session, voted to send the bill back but said it will have enough time. During a heated discussion with Minority Floor Leader Paul LeVota of Independence, he challenged the Democrats' argument that this move would kill the bill.

"I think the minority leader either doesn't know the rules or he isn't being honest," Tilley said of LeVota. "This bill can most certainly get to the governor's desk in time."

The bill at issue was originally passed by the Senate, but the Ethics Reform Committee amended the legislation to essentially replace it with theirs. The committee, chaired by Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, originally passed their own bill but it languished in Rules.

Rules Committee Chairman Mike Parson, R-Bolivar, never brought the House's original version up for a hearing and waited a week between the Ethics Reform Committee passing this amended version before reviving it.

He said he would not expedite the process of getting the legislation back through, if and when the Ethics Reform Committee passes it again, which countered multiple Republicans who said the bill could, in theory, get back on the House floor by early next week. 

"I'll tell you, I don't know what the other members think, but I'll treat this bill the same as any other," Parson said. "I'm not rushing it over any other."

Rep. Bryan Pratt, R-Blue Springs, said he opposed moving the bill to the full House because it is not strong enough in reigning in Gov. Jay Nixon and the executive branch. He said he wants language that would bar anyone who donates money to the governor from serving for him and also to create a long waiting period between legislators retiring and coming back to the Capitol as lobbyists.

While the other Republicans who spoke in opposition focused on contribution limits, Pratt made a point to say that he thought there were much bigger flaws.

"I thought we would have a stronger bill," Pratt said. "You want to talk about campaign finance and play to the news media, but I'm upset about this whole bill."

Rep. Brian Munzlinger, R-Williamstown, said contribution limits decrease transparency, because politicians will just shift money between places. He said he would be inclined to support the same bill, just with limits removed.

"They will always get the money," Munzlinger said of candidates for office. "But without limits, at least we will know where it comes from."

Rep. Kevin Wilson, R-Neosho, who sponsored the House legislation and chaired the Ethics Reform Committee, was headed on his way out of the Capitol around 7 p.m. when he found out that his bill had been sent back. He said he heard rumors during the day that the bill might get sent down but was waiting to see the result before deciding what to do with it next.

He said he wasn't sure what, if any, changes would be made, but he said he would need to discuss taking donation limits out. He has previously said that limits were likely going to be the most contentious aspect of a reform bill with nearly 30 provisions, but he hoped it wouldn't stall the bill.

"Clearly, it stalled the bill," Wilson said. "I can't tell you what I don't know, but I think we'll have to discuss limits and figure out how to get this bill through."

Rep. John Burnett, who is the only representative to serve on both the Ethics Reform and Rules committees, said he also worries reform is dead. He said the reform committee likely will refuse to remove the limits, even if it makes the bill more palatable.

"I know we can't get the support of all 12 members if we take them out," Burnett said. "So much depends on the limits that taking them out might unravel a bunch of things we wanted to do."

Burnett lamented Monday's vote and said, with at least 55 new representatives coming in next year, this was probably the best chance for reform to pass during Nixon's first term, which doesn't end until 2013.

Roorda said he found it ironic that the bill might fail because of opposition to campaign limits, even though it might already preclude any donations from lobbyists.

"I said all along it'll be illegal to take a hamburger from a lobbyist, but it'll be legal to get a $100,000 check," Roorda said. "Now I don't think we'll even get that far."