Missouri’s Republican-led House is expected to approve a set of rules today that would allow for the creation of more issues-specific committees in the chamber – a move that Democratic leaders say could create a way for lawmakers to hide the gifts they receive from lobbyists.

Gifts and meals provided by lobbyists are reported monthly to the state Ethics Commission – either by individual or committee. Those reports are made public the following month.

In the proposed rules that will come up for a vote on the House floor, any group of House members could seek to form an “issues development standing committee” by applying to the chamber’s Administration and Accounts Committee chair. (Available on Page 42 of this PDF)

House Majority Floor Leader John Diehl, R-Town and Country, said the newly-formed groups would report gifts just as regular committees do.

“I don’t think it’s going to be used very frequently,” he said Tuesday.

But Minority Leader Jacob Hummel, D-St. Louis, said the proposed rule change would create another layer of reporting in which a lobbyist could record giving gifts to an issues committee, rather than its individual members.

“I think what it does, in effect, is get them out of some of the Ethics Commission's reporting requirements,” he said. “I think it’s a way to get their members to not be dinged on.”

Diehl said the intention isn’t to hide lobbyists’ gifts. He said Democrats, who face a Republican super-majority in the chamber this year, are looking for opportunities to criticize the GOP members.

Lobbyist-paid meals and parties have become a staple of the Legislature’s yearly sessions that run from January through mid-May.

The state doesn't limit how much lobbyists can spend on legislators, but some lawmakers have faced criticism for receiving such freebies, which include tickets to sporting events and concerts, as well as end-of-session gifts like golf clubs and bottles of wine.

Diehl said the addition of issues-specific groups is intended to help the body fine-tune legislation that may fall under multiple committees.

For example, Diehl said the chamber's efforts regarding small modular nuclear reactors could be better addressed through an issues development committee.

“It’s both economic development and energy policy,” he said, which could result in inconsistent bills from those two committees.

Hummel said he thinks that the policy is so vague that groups could form under interests – such as a “sportsman issues committee” – without producing legislation and still providing a cover for lawmakers to receive gifts without their names specifically tied to freebies.

“We think it’s bad public policy,” Hummel said. “When there’s lobbying done, it should be reported.”

Smoking ban

The House Democratic Caucus had sought a ban on smoking in the chamber’s legislative offices, but the proposal was struck down in the Rules Committee on Tuesday and won't appear in the version lawmakers take up on the floor today.

Still, House Republicans could be working on a caucus policy of their own that would also bar smoking.

Smoking is prohibited in public spaces of the Missouri Capitol, but legislators have continued to allow cigar and cigarette smoking in their private offices. The Democrats announced last week that they had adopted a policy to prohibit smoking in their members’ offices, but they wanted the ban formally extended to all areas controlled by the chamber through a rules change.

“It’s not the proper place – to put it in the rules,” Diehl said, noting that the GOP caucus has been working on a similar policy proposal that would curb smoking in its members' offices.

Hummel said Dems will try again to add the smoking ban into the rules when they come up for a vote on the House floor.

Transparency

One last item on the rules slated for approval this week: Diehl said that one of the changes he thinks will be most significant is a provision that will require House members receive printed, advance copies of all proposed amendments.

“Everybody’s going to have – in writing – the amendments we’re talking about,” he said. “That’s never been done before in the House.”

He said that the change will add a layer of transparency and ensure legislators are better prepared to deal with legislation.

“These rules will set up the most transparent procedure of passing bills than we’ve ever seen in the House,” he said.

Elizabeth Crisp covers Missouri politics and state government for the Post-Dispatch. Follow her on Twitter at @elizabethcrisp.