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February 10, 2005

What if?

by Chris Feeney

What if there was such a thing as a free lunch? Apparently the Missouri Senate believes there should be free lunches, at least for its members. Our state leaders deemed it necessary this week to dispose of a little rule that previously had prevented members of the Senate from receiving gifts from lobbyists.

On Tuesday, February 1, the Senate revoked rule 102 that stated:

A member of the Senate may accept meals, food, beverage or other gifts from a legislative lobbyist or the lobbyist’s principal as defined in section 105.470. (4) (a), RSMo, if any single item accepted has a value of less than fifty dollars, and all items accepted by any member in any calendar year from a lobbyist or lobbyist principal, as defined in section 105.4703. (4) (a), do not exceed a value of one hundred dollars in the aggregate.

Proponents of the rule reversal stated the regulation was outdated and unenforceable. There were no penalties established by the order, which was passed back in 1995 before state law required lobbyists to submit to the Missouri Ethics Commission, listings of all gifts to elected officials.

For us cynics, this isn’t the greatest reason to get rid of the law – “It’s wrong, but we really don’t get in trouble for doing it, so lets make it okay so we don’t have to feel guilty.”

Maybe the Jefferson City Association of Restaurants hired a lobbyist to help get the rule eliminated. It likely will lead to more business for them as senators can now be freely (without ramifications, not without cost) wined and dined.

In the Senators’ defense, there is no such state law, nor are there any limits placed on lobbyists gifts to their counterparts in the Missouri House of Representatives.

While I can be a cynic, I am also a realist. While this news initially caused me a moment of outrage, I concluded that the rule change basically amounted to reading the fine print.

It was okay for the University of Missouri lobbyist to provide more than $1,300 in “entertainment” for outgoing Governor Bob Holden. I’m not sure what political value this lobbying provided as it looks more like a farewell gift to me.

It was similarly permissible for Speaker of the House Rod Jetton, R-Marble Hill, to receive more than $300 a month in meals and entertainment from lobbyists in the final quarter of 2004.

So why shouldn’t senators be allowed to get their share of the free stuff? Again the cynic rears his ugly head. Who says the politician isn’t simply getting his supper paid for? Maybe he or she has already decided how to vote on the subject at hand, but simply is getting a free lunch.

Our Senator, John Cauthorn, R-Mexico, must be on a diet. According to the lobbyist reports, the second-term Senator did not accept a single gift or meal from lobbyists in 2004.

The ethics commission requires every lobbyist to file a monthly report electronically using the commission’s web based reporting system. Also, on March 15th and May 30th of each year, every lobbyist principal must file with the Missouri Ethics Commission a general description of the legislation proposed, any action taken by the executive branch of government, and whether or not the lobbyist principal supported or opposed such action.

Would it surprise anyone to know that the latest listing of lobbyists that are petitioning our state officials was 297 pages long?

The website, while a little difficult to navigate, is an interesting tool for the public. Anyone with an internet connection, can go to the Missouri Ethics Commission webpage and review lobbyists and the gifts they are giving our elected officials, legislative, executive or judicial. Just look under lobbyists and then check out the legislative reports link. You can search the monthly reports for any elected official or any lobbyist. The direct link is www.moethics.state.mo.us/Ethics/Lobbying/LegReports.aspx


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