JEFFERSON CITY - Missouri senators removed the lid on gift values from lobbyists, but closed the lid on lap-tops.
The Senate removed its restrictions on receiving lobbyist gifts while preserving the ban on members using computers on in the Senate chamber in the new rules they adopted for the 2005 session.
By a voice vote, the Senate voted to eliminate from its rules a provision barring senators from accepting a gift worth more than $50 from a single lobbyist and from accepting more than $100 dollars in gifts per year.
Sen. Joan Bray, D-St. Louis County, objected to the change.
Bray said the change ensures lobbyists will spend more money on senators at the expense of public perception.
"I'm not saying that everyone is bought and paid for here because that's not the case, but again, there are cases where the public can point to favorable outcomes for moneyed interests," Bray said. "I know the public feels that way, and I think anything we can do to allay those perceptions, we should be doing."
The change will not impact mandatory reporting to the Missouri Ethics Commission. Lobbyists are required to detail the amount of money they spend and the recipient of their money to the commission.
Speaking in favor of the rule change, Sen. Kevin Engler, R-Farmington, said the rule, which was created in 1995, is outdated, not enforceable and only gives a perception of ethical behavior.
"The current method is an illusion that senators must be ethical," he said. "We have to report it, and if the constituents don't like it, they can hold you accountable."
The chairman of the Senate Ethics Committee which recommended the change - Senate Majority Leader Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph -- called the $50 cap an "arcane" rule.
Shields said the need for the rule has passed with Web posting of lobbyist expenditure reports by the Missouri Ethics Commission.
"They can go out and look at those reports and determine exactly what level of giving and receiving any given legislator does, and I think that's a powerful tool," he said.
In addition to eliminating restrictions on gifts, the Senate rejected an amendment to permit laptop computers in the chamber.
The amendment's sponsor -- Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit -- said the Senate needed to maximize the tools available to improve the body's ability to govern. Proponents said computers would reduce paper, making the body more efficient while allowing constituents to contact lawmakers by email about issues currently as they are being debated in the Senate.
"Lord forbid if we were to allow our constituents to taint our debate," Bartle said.
Opponents to the Senate digital deliverance amendment included some of the Senate's newest members.
Freshman Sen. Chris Koster, R-Harrisonville, said the Senate floor was not designed for office work and computers would reduce the level of debate, threatening the decision-making process.
"This is not the place where I catch up on e-mails. And this not the place where I check my stock, and this is not the place where we trade on e-bay," he said. "And it's really not the place where we communicate with constituents, it's the place where we communicate with one another."
The debate, which turned into free-ranging discussion on accountability to the populace and lobbyist influence, prompted Sen. Chuck Gross, R-St. Charles, to set his two cell phones and palm pilot upon his desk and briefly decline to use his microphone.
"Computers are about a need for speed, and that is not what the Senate should be about," Gross said.
Sen. Victor Callahan, D-Independence, threatened to offer an amendment allowing lobbyists to communicate with senators on the floor via an earpiece.
"I don't know if you've seen the movie Manchurian Candidate, but maybe we should just have diodes put into our brain so that they don't even need to directly communicate to us on the floor," said Callahan -- who ultimately did not introduce the ear-piece amendment.
Ironically, during the debate a few senators could be seen using blackberrys and palm pilots as their colleagues argued whether to allow them to use laptops in the chamber.
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