JEFFERSON CITY - Some of the more ardent defenders of lobbyists picking up legislative dinner tabs comes from what you might find to be a surprising source - government lobbyists.
And, some of the support for the legislative proposal to ban lobbyist gifts is coming from other lobbyists.
The University of Missouri System's chief lobbyist, Jim Snider, says there was nothing wrong when Snider and his boss, M.U. President George Russell, recently hosted a dinner for a group of lawmakers.
"That gave us the opportunity to talk about issues on the university front," he said. "It's for the legislators more than anybody. If they want to grill Russell, they should have that chance."
But should Rep. Greg Canuteson's bill banning lobbyists from buying gifts for legislators be signed into law, that sort of activity would come to a screeching halt. The bill, which passed out of the House Judiciary Committee last week by a narrow 7-6 vote, is on Speaker Steve Gaw's to-do list and could soon reach the floor for debate.
Not all lobbyists oppose the gift-ban bill, however. Because there is presently no limit on how much a lobbyist can spend on a legislator, lobby groups that don't have the funds to buy dinners for legislators are left behind, said Ken Midkiff, a lobbyist for the Sierra Club.
"I think there is an advantage gained by business and for-profit groups," he said. "We think the bill levels the playing field."
But Snider said the bill has little to do with a real problem, and more to do with correcting the public perception that lobbyists exert undue influence through giving gifts. The reality is that dinners can serve as valuable information sessions, he said.
When Paul Durand, a lobbyist for the City of Columbia, has bought dinner for a legislator, conversation usually is not centered on legislative business, but rather on personal issues, he said.
"That's been real helpful in developing a relationship with the legislator," Durand said.
By taking away that tool for establishing personal ties with lawmakers, Durand said, Canuteson's bill would hamper his activity as a lobbyist.
At the committee hearing on the gift-ban bill, Sam Overfelt, a lobbyist for the Missouri Society of Governmental Consultants, said that spending limits should be placed on the amount that lobbyists can spend on legislators, but that there is no harm in allowing a lobbyist to buy dinner for a lawmaker.
"It is traditional more than anything," Overfelt said. "To an extent, we do it because other people are doing it too. If I thought that I could buy someone's vote with a meal, I wouldn't invite that person to dinner."