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Lobbyist Money Help  

Bills filed to close caucus loophole

March 02, 2006
By: Jason Rosenbaum
State Capital Bureau

JEFFERSON CITY - When a Missouri legislator goes out to dinner or to a basketball game on a lobbyist's dime, Missourians are supposed to get a look at the final tab.

But a loophole in the disclosure process likely kept nearly a third of a million dollars worth of meals, entertainment and travel off of Missouri lawmaker's legislative reports -- and out of public view.

Now, Republican lawmakers from the House and Senate filed bills that would limit lobbyist expenditures to the four main caucuses.

Sen. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, introduced a bill this week that would ban gifts by lobbyists to any caucus except the Majority House Caucus, the Minority House Caucus, the Majority Senate Caucus and the Minority Senate Caucus.

The bill, which is cosponsored by every Republican in the Senate and five Democrats, contains several other major changes in special interesting funding for legislators. Among the provisions:

* Ban lobbyists providing trips, sporting tickets or lodging to legislators, their staff or relatives.

* Ban legislators accepting campaign contributions during a legislative session.

* Require lawmakers to disclose their fund raising totals once a month instead once every quarter.

"If a lobbyist wants to go to dinner with a legislator or discuss issues, that's fine," Shields said. "But I think that ought to be handled in a manner that's transparent."

He added there has been "a level of discomfort" for years about the system, which prompted him to file the bill.

"It's a pretty broad, sweeping piece in terms of dealing with ethics issues," Shields said.

House Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, also introduced a similar bill Thursday that would confine meals, entertainment and travel to the four main caucuses.

After being told how many gifts were being given to caucuses from lobbyists, Dempsey said he wasn't aware lobbyists were giving that much meals, entertainment and travel to caucuses.

"That's a lot of money," he said.

Last year, lobbyists representing corporations, cities and interest groups earmarked over $331,000 worth of meals, entertainment and travel to caucuses.

While lobbyists must report these expenditures to the Missouri Ethics Commission, they are not required to place them on a legislator's disclosure report.

Here's how it works:

* When a legislator is taken out by a lobbyist to dinner or to an entertainment venue, the lobbyist is required to disclose the legislator's name and how much was spent.

* But a provision in the law allows a lobbyist avoid disclosing the names of individual legislators by inviting an entire legislative "caucus" and disclosing only the name of the caucus.

* The lobbyist report does not disclose which, if any, members of the caucus actually were on the receiving end of lobbyist's spending or attended the caucus dinner.

* Caucus memberships are not listed on the legislature's Web sites that list other committee members.

Some say this process creates a shroud of anonymity intended to mislead the public.

"[Legislators] they can go home and show their voters their lobbyist gift form with nothing on it," Sen. Chuck Graham, D-Columbia, said.

There are dozens of caucuses in the Missouri legislature which band together legislators of a political party, region or ideology into groups. Some caucuses constitute no more than a group of legislators that share the same office complex -- such as the "109 Caucus" that got nearly $7,000 in 2005, the tenth largest of any of the caucuses.

Lists showing who belongs to these groups are not available on either the Missouri Ethics Commission Web site nor on the legislature's Web sites.

While some caucuses, such as the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus and the St. Louis Regional Caucus, have web sites listing members, other lists are only available in the General Assembly's legislative journals that contain more than two-thousand pages during the course of a session.

"Right now, all the information is not getting out there about the amount of resources that are being provided," Graham said.

According to data gathered from the commission, Republican-leaning caucuses received the most amount of meals, entertainment and travel opportunities from lobbyists and their benefactors.

The Senate Republican Caucus received $62,768.02 worth of meals, entertainment and travel, which is the most out of any caucus. The second biggest recipient was the House Republican Caucus with $57,597.75 worth of gifts, followed by the Republican Leadership Caucus with $36,542.13, and the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus with $28,081.95.

The Missouri Chamber of Commerce and Industry provided the most money, $62,931.51, to pay for the meals, entertainment and travel for caucuses. Other major providers of funding include the Missouri Hospital Association with $22,248.89 and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce with $11,666.67.

The University of Missouri gave $2,990 worth of meals and entertainment to caucuses, the second largest amount by a university behind Missouri State University, which gave $5,163.98 worth of meals and entertainment.

MU gave two entertainment packages to the Missouri Legislative Black Caucus, which added up to $1,200. They also gave one $960 entertainment gift to the House Republican Caucus and another $630 entertainment gift to the House Democratic Caucus.

While there are restrictions to campaign finance and lobbying laws, Richard Hardy, an associate professor of political science at the University of Missouri-Columbia and a proponent of term limits in Missouri, said giving to caucuses is a "gray area," which has potential for mischief.

"On the one hand, the general public likes to have accountability -- that's the impetuous behind the sunshine laws," Hardy said.

House Minority Leader Jeff Harris, who sponsored a bill that would force lobbyists to disclose how much money they're being paid by their clients, said disclosure of lobbyist expenditures would give taxpayers a better idea of how much money is being spent by big business and others to lobby at the Capitol.

"If you've got nothing to hide, why not disclose it?" Harris added.

Upon hearing about the new bill, Harris said the two parties seem to be going the same direction in order to close the caucus loophole.

"It sounds like we're sort of thinking along the same lines," Harris said.

Before the two bills were introduced, Rep. Ed Robb, R-Columbia, said he didn't think this issue is resonating in the Missouri legislature.

"I don't think a dinner, per se, is a major issue at all," Robb said. "I mean, a dinner is a dinner."

Robb said at these functions, or at any other type of meeting, a lobbyist is going to try and make the best case possible for their client.

"The dinner is sort of the hook to get you to come to the meetings so they can make their presentation," Robb said. "And I've never heard anything at one of those meetings that would sway me one way or another.

"I don't think there's anybody else in this building that's going to be swayed by the price of a dinner," he said.

Although Robb said giving a meal to a caucus instead of a legislator in a sense is an end-around the disclosure system, he's not sure it should be made a big issue. "I haven't given it a lot of thought, to tell you the truth," he said.

Hardy said it was unlikely the legislature is going to take serious action to restrict lobbyist gifts to caucuses, because it has the potential at taking away their "perceived rights."

Instead, he said changes to the system will likely come from either an initiative petition or a lawsuit.

"The effective law will come from the people," Hardy said. "You're going to have to circumvent the legislature because there's no incentive to restrict something that benefits them."

Hardy said there's always potential for alarm when dealing with lobbyist expenditures, which makes public discussion and debate important.

"Only through public discussion can we determine the efficacy and limits of this practice," Hardy said.