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Freebies flow at Missouri Capitol; pols accept more than $600k from lobbyists

Free food for lawmakers in Capitol

A butcher shop worker prepares a free lunch of pulled pork for Missouri lawmakers and staffers on Tuesday, May 13, 2014. The lunch was paid for by pork giant Murphy-Brown LLC of Princeton, Mo., a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods. The Legislature has failed to limit lobbyists' gifts or campaign donations. Photo by Virginia Young of the Post-Dispatch

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Missouri public officials took in $680,000 in lobbyist gifts during the 2014 legislative session, with nearly all of it going to state lawmakers.

That represents a 10 percent decline from the first five months of 2013, and is about the same as in 2011 and 2012, according to Missouri Ethics Commission data.

It isn’t clear which lawmakers were the recipients of the vast majority of lobbyist spending. More than $500,000 in gifts went to legislative committees or the entire General Assembly, mostly in the form of receptions and meals. By listing a committee or legislative body as the recipient of the gift, lobbyists don’t have to provide names of specific lawmakers.

For example, $257,000 in gifts went to “Entire General Assembly,” with no mention of individual lawmakers.

Excluding gifts given directly to individuals, spending attributed to groups and committees amounted to $2,600 per legislator during the session, which ended in May.

The share of spending directed to groups has risen in recent years and the practice has drawn criticism. A bill was proposed during the session that aimed to limit gifts that could be claimed to a committee. But — like all other attempts during the session to curb or eliminate lobbyist spending — it failed to gain traction.

More than a dozen bills were filed in the most recent session proposing various ethics reform measures in Missouri, the only state that allows unlimited lobbyist spending and places no caps on campaign contributions. None passed.

George Connor, a political science professor at Missouri State University, said the 2015 session was unlikely to produce a different outcome.

“I just don’t think there’s the political will in the General Assembly to make any changes,” he said, “and the biggest reason is that the vast majority of legislators don’t see it as a problem.”

Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, agreed. “It’ll take a tremendous outcry from the public, because right now it works fine for everybody else,” he said. Many legislators have little incentive to not take gifts or push reforms that would eliminate them, he said. “Half the people running (for legislative seats) don’t even have opponents.”

It’s worth pointing out that some legislators didn’t accept any gifts, and that others reimbursed lobbyists after receiving them. Lawmakers repaid lobbyists nearly $3,000 during the course of the session, though in the past, some have used campaign funds to do so.

Overall, more than 80 percent of total spending during the session went toward food and meals. Lobbyists spent $31,000 on entertainment, mostly tickets for ballgames. Lawmakers have received nearly $7,000 in Cardinals tickets so far this season. On opening day, the House pushed back its start time so legislators could go to the game.

While the lobbyist spending slows down after the session ends, there’s typically a surge in entertainment-related gifts once the Cardinals, Rams, Chiefs and Mizzou football and basketball are in full swing.

Last year, 70 percent of entertainment related spending — nearly $80,000 — took place after the session ended, with much of it coming in the form of Cardinals playoff tickets.

The session’s biggest supplier of free food was the Missouri Hospital Association, which spent more than $37,000 during a session where it unsuccessfully pushed for Medicaid expansion.

The Medicaid push “was a major focus, but not an exclusive focus,” said Dave Dillon, a spokesman for the association.

He said the association had dozens of issues on its lobbying agenda each year, and that it had made progress with Medicaid. “We look at a legislative session like it’s a down in football,” he said.

The session’s largest expense came from the Missouri Beer Wholesalers Association, which spent $10,792 on a reception for the General Assembly at a Jefferson City hotel. Other dinners and receptions with price tags of about $9,000 were provided by the Missouri Association of Realtors, the Missouri Association of Rehabilitation Facilities, and the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association.

As the session came to a close in May, the number of free meals declined, with a few notable exceptions. Courtesy of pork giant Murphy-Brown LLC, lawmakers were treated to a $3,700 pork and coleslaw spread.

And Tesla Motors, which successfully fought a proposal that would have prevented it from being able to sell its cars directly to consumers in the state, spent $2,300 taking lawmakers out to eat.

Dinners and ballgames are a great way to get access and maintain relationships with lawmakers who may already support a lobbyist’s cause, Connor said. “It tends to be more of a reward than an incentive.”

As long as Missouri has a part-time Legislature and term limits, Connor said, lawmakers will rely on lobbyists and interest groups for knowledge of certain issues.

“I’m less concerned about the reliance on interest groups for lunch as I am on their reliance on lobbyists for information,” he said.

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Source: Missouri Ethics Commission

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Walker Moskop is a data specialist and reporter for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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