Divided house passes ethics legislation
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Divided house passes ethics legislation

Date: May 6, 2010
By: Michael Bushnell
State Capitol Bureau
Links: SB 844 and the roll call vote

JEFFERSON CITY - After months of efforts to reach a bi-partisan consensus on ethics reform, the House Thursday passed an ethics bill without the support of a single Democrat. Put together in under 24 hours, the bill includes a number of controversial measures, and still faces an uncertain future in the Senate, which could simply just set it aside in its final week.

By a purely partisan 88-71 vote, the House approved the measure carried by Rep. Tim Jones, R-Eureka, which carries a wide range of provisions, including granting the Lt. Governor power to sue on behalf of the state, requiring a state-issued photo ID to vote (with some exceptions), and mandating a secret ballot for union organizers; all of which proved anathema to every House Democrat.

The bill also contains much of what came out of the original legislation from the House Ethics Reform Committee, including prohibiting an ex-legislator from becoming a state lobbyist within two years of leaving office.

The bill would also place a $20,000 cap on individual campaign contributions for statewide and local officials. Members of the General Assembly were exempt from the limit in the language of the bill, although House Speaker Ron Richard, R-Joplin, said they will be included in final language.

"If I had any intention in keeping us out of the bill, I would have been more transparent about it," Richard said. "I think we made a statement today and I'm happy with the results."

This ethics legislation was put on a different bill than the ones that have been weaving their way back and forth through House committees over the past few months. This bill was put together early Thursday morning and went through two committee hearings before 10 a.m.

The House suspended the rules to allow the bill to be heard on the floor Thursday afternoon, and Democrats said they had no warning to expect this fight.

"It was a runaway train and that's what they wanted," said Rep. Jeff Roorda, D-Barnhart. "This was a sham bill and a terrible process that it went through."

Roorda and Democratic Floor Leader Paul LeVota, D-Independence, complained they weren't allowed to speak on the bill prior to the vote. During the debate, Richard refused to call on any Democrats to speak or offer amendments; some could be heard yelling in vain to be called on, and when Richard called for a vote, Rep. Steven Webber, D-Columbia, threw a stack of paper in the air in disgust.

When asked about the technique, Richard said he was taking advantage of a perk of being the leader of the majority. Jones agreed, and said Richard gave Democrats more than he had to, including allowing them to speak when Republicans asked them to.

"If the speaker wanted to, he could have just (called for a vote) immediately after it was brought up," Jones said. "The majority party has the power to govern as a majority."

During a press conference following the session, Republican leaders vigorously defended the bill, and said it would pass the constitutional test that bans law that covers more than one general topic. Jones said the bill covered most of the topics that the Ethics Reform Committee supported.

He also accused Democrats of trying to kill ethics reform last week by filing a discharge petition, which sent the then-languishing bill to the House floor with the knowledge GOP leaders wouldn't bring it up.

"Plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery," Jones said. "There is 80 or 90 percent of what was in the old bill in this one, but Democrats don't want ethics reform." 

Assistant Democratic Floor Leader J.C. Kuessner, D-Eminence, said the bill will die in the Senate, which has already expressed opposition to many of the provisions that were included in the original ethics reform bill the Ethics Reform Committee supported. He said he was disappointed Republicans put in language that wasn't in previous ethics bills and that Republicans knew Democrats could not support it before they even brought it up.

"We've seen the majority pull this stunt before," Kuessner said. "They send bills through knowing the Senate will ignore them, and then they go around saying we don't want ethics reform. It's a joke."

He and other Democratic leaders singled out giving suing power to the Lt. Governor, the secret ballot provision and the higher cap on campaign donations (up from $5,000 in the original bill) as changes from past ethics reform drafts that made the legislation impossible to support.

Rep. John Burnett, who serves on the Ethics Reform Committee, criticized that this bill didn't go through his committee. It was referred through General Laws at 8 a.m. this morning, then Rules at 9 a.m., and some Democrats said they didn't see the legislation before they were asked to vote yes or no.

"The bill we voted on today looks nothing like what we worked on for months," Burnett said. "They knew we wouldn't support all these new things, and they did it behind our backs. They know the Senate won't support this."

Majority Floor Leader Steve Tilley, R-Perryville, defended the size of the legislation against Democratic claims that it might violate the provision against combining issues from different topics in one bill,  the language "complete and constitutional."

He said he hoped the Senate would pass most of the language currently in the bill, and was confident they would pass it before the session ends next Friday.

"I'm going to fight for each and every provision," Tilley said. "I think this is some of the most complete legislation that we've seen in a long time, and hopefully the Senate will find much of this agreeable."

Senate Speaker Pro Tem Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph, left Jefferson City early in the afternoon, and was not available for comment. However, he previously said he opposes restrictions on lobbyists becoming legislators and a number of other provisions included in the wide-ranging bill.

Rep. Chris Kelly, D-Columbia, lamented the party-line vote and said the Republicans were being dishonest.

"This is why people despise politicians," Kelly said. "They were pompous, they were arrogant, they misled people and they know it. This will not become law and they know it."

While Democrats on the Ethics Reform Committee expressed anguish that they couldn't support a bill along the lines of what they had worked on all session, the committee's Republican chair said he was happy with this legislation and with the work he and his colleagues did.

"I think our committee laid the groundwork," said Rep. Kevin Wilson of Neosho. "Getting ethics reform done was a promise we made at the beginning of session, and we kept up our end of the bargain, even if the Democrats said no."