In his opening remarks last week, Speaker Richardson pledged that the House would pass a package of ethics bills at the earliest opportunity. This week, we delivered. On Monday, the House Committee on Government Oversight and Accountability heard and passed four ethics bills. On Thursday, the House passed them on to the Senate.
The first two bills increase transparency by requiring additional financial disclosures by members of the General Assembly. Under current law, elected officials must disclose their outside employment and financial interests, as well as all honorariums, travel, and lodging paid for by a third party once a year. Examples of out-of-state travel and lodging include gubernatorial trips to foreign countries that include members of the General Assembly and are paid for by the Hawthorn Foundation, or a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
House Bill 1452, requires that personal financial disclosures must be filed twice annually. House Bill 1575 requires that out-of-state travel and lodging disclosures must be filed within 30 days of the travel. Both of these bills ensure timely public disclosures.
The late Auditor Tom Schweich explained that corruption was not limited to outright bribery or self-dealing. That the more pervasive form of corruption was the “short-circuiting” of the ordinary political process through undue or improper influence. You might call this “type-two” corruption. That’s the aim of the other two bills.
House Bill 1983 prohibits elected officials from working as paid political consultants for fellow members or statewide candidates. There are recent examples of powerful members of the legislature working for other members – for pay. These relationships drive the perception if not actual conflicts of interest.
Finally, House Bill 1979 closes the revolving door by requiring legislators to wait one year before working as a paid lobbyist. It also prohibits legislators from soliciting people for a lobbying job while they are still members.
These four bills were passed out of the House on the first possible day. In most years, there is little to no floor activity in the first, second, or even third weeks of session. This year, the ethics bills packed the schedule. And it’s only half-time.
Next Tuesday, my committee will hear its second batch of ethics bills. House Bill 2165 prohibits former legislators from working as lobbyists until they liquidate their campaign accounts – even with the one year waiting period. House 2166 bans lobbyist gifts. House Bill 2203, which I sponsored, requires that campaign funds be liquid – held in savings accounts or short-term investments, and may not be used to invest in businesses or hedge funds.
Finally, House Bill 2226, which I also sponsored, adds members of executive branch task forces and advisory committees created for the purpose of recommending public policy involving the spending of taxpayer money to the list of officials prohibited from self-dealing. Under current Missouri law, executive branch task force officials are covered by the Sunshine Law, but not§105.452‘s prohibition on self-dealing. Under federal law, executive branch task force members are prohibited from using their public position to make a private profit. If they violate the law, they are subject to five years in prison. See 18 U.S.C. § 208.
HB 2226 fixes this oversight. Regardless if one is a legislator, department director, board and commission members, or a specially designated member of a gubernatorial task force, no person in a position of public trust should ever be permitted to obtain a special monetary benefit from their public actions – whether directly from taxpayers or from any other source.
Though it didn’t make his list of ethics priorities, I am hopeful that Gov. Nixon would agree with this simple premise: when one decides to accept a public position, they must also forego any personal profit that might be derived from their public position. To do anything less would violate the public trust placed in them. HB 2226 ensures that this fundamental rule of government ethics applies to task force members empowered with the authority to make key recommendations on the expenditure of taxpayer funds.
Looking at all these bill numbers might make you feel like you’re reading a telephone book. Why so many? It’s a matter of legislative and legal strategy. If insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result, then those interested in passing ethics reforms bills in Missouri would be insane to try to put them all together in a single bill. We know from past experience that’s how ethics bills die.
As for the legal strategy, several of these bills affect political speech and the right to petition government. As fundamental rights explicitly included in the First Amendment, they are protected by strict scrutiny analysis. They must be narrowly tailored to further a compelling governmental interest. There’s no doubt that curbing corruption is a compelling interest. But to ensure bills meet the narrowly tailored requirement, we must sometimes choose to do less than we might otherwise like.
I expect that the second half of bills will make their way to the Senate within the next few weeks. After that, it’s in the Senate’s hands. With the leadership of President Pro Tem Ron Richard and our own Senator Mike Kehoe, I’m more confident than ever that several (and hopefully all) of these bills can make it across the finish line.