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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

JEFFERSON CITY • Missouri legislators, who can accept unlimited gifts from lobbyists, dined high on the hog Tuesday — literally.

In between the marble columns just outside the doors of the Senate chamber, a butcher carved up three 200-pound hogs.

Hundreds of legislators, staffers and lobbyists lined up for the spread, which featured pulled pork sandwiches and coleslaw. It was provided by pork giant Murphy-Brown LLC of Princeton, Mo., a subsidiary of Smithfield Foods.

Bill Homann, director of administration and compliance for Murphy-Brown, said the company hosted the feast to show “a little appreciation” to the Legislature. Smithfield Foods was sold to a Chinese conglomerate last year after legislators passed a law allowing foreign ownership of up to 1 percent of the state’s farmland.

Other than the novelty of having a whole hog on display, the feed was far from unusual.

Legislators are feted with free food in the Rotunda, basement hearing rooms and area restaurants from morning to night. Big-ticket items outside the Capitol, such as expensive dinners, sporting event tickets and out-of-state travel, helped push the total of freebies to nearly a million dollars’ worth in 2013, according to Missouri Ethics Commission records.

And with only three days left before they adjourn for the year, that’s unlikely to change. Legislators have stymied bills that would ban or limit such gifts.

A bill on the House debate calendar would cap gifts at $50 per expenditure and $750 per legislator each quarter. The sponsor, Rep. Caleb Rowden, R-Columbia, planned to tighten the bill by making the $750-per-quarter limit apply as an aggregate that a legislator could receive from all lobbyists.

But Rowden said Tuesday that House Republican leaders decided against debating the bill on the House floor because it was too late for it to pass in the Senate. “We’ll file it next year,” he promised.

Senators, meanwhile, have shelved bills that would have barred most lobbyist-paid meals and out-of-state junkets for legislators and imposed a one-year cooling-off period before legislators could become lobbyists, among other things.

“Without a doubt, the vast majority of members of both (political parties’) caucuses don’t want any changes to the day-to-day goings-on down here,” said Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, who sponsored an ethics overhaul. “They don’t want caps on gifts, they don’t want to stop the flow of meals and trips. They don’t want any of that.”

Secretary of State Jason Kander outlined a sweeping ethics proposal in January. Kander, a Democrat, said in a statement Tuesday that he was “disappointed that the Republican leadership appears to have given up on fixing the worst set of laws in the country.

“The argument they used all session — that it’s ‘too hard’ to pass comprehensive reform — is insulting to Missourians,” Kander said. “All it takes to change the law is a vote. Missourians deserve one.”

Missouri’s ethics laws fall short in three areas that most states address, critics say.

First is the lack of limits on gifts; 35 states impose some limits, with 12 of those states banning gifts.

Thirty-one states have enacted a “cooling-off period” before a former legislator can work at the legislature as a lobbyist. Missouri has no revolving-door rules for legislators who become lobbyists.

Finally, 46 states impose some type of limit on campaign contributions. Missouri repealed its contribution limits in 2008. Democrats say any ethics reform bill must include contribution limits.

But the Republican-controlled Legislature opposes that move, saying that limits made it harder to track money because it can be routed around the limits through political action committees.

The result is a standoff. Lamping contends that both parties collaborated “with a wink and a nod” to kill the ethics bill.

John Messmer, a political science professor at St. Louis Community College at Meramec, has been trying a new tack. He wants legislators to sign a pledge to quit accepting freebies.

While legislators deny being influenced by freebies, Messmer said lobbyists “aren’t buying all this stuff out of the goodness of their heart. They’re doing this to build a relationship. It’s a relationship that the average citizen just can’t afford.”

The no-gift pledge is on Messmer’s website, MoReform.org. It has been signed by only two incumbents — Rep. John Wright, D-Rocheport, and Sen. Scott Sifton, D-St. Louis County.

Wright said the “lobbyist gift culture” is so pervasive that colleagues are unclear how they’d function without it.

“There are a number whose hearts are in the right place, but when they sit down and think about all the things they’d have to give up around the Capitol, they decide not to do it,” Wright said.

Another key sticking point in the ethics debate has been whether to regulate the revolving door.

Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, has unsuccessfully pushed for a two-year cooling-off period between legislating and lobbying.

“It’s fair to say there are members of leadership in both bodies who have a desire to lobby when they’re done here,” Lager concluded.

Senate President Pro Tem Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, said he’s not looking to become a lobbyist when he leaves the Senate. Still, he doesn’t want to limit that option.

“I don’t think we should be precluded from continuing to work in jobs related to government,” Dempsey said. “You do learn about the process here. I think it’s helpful to understand how bills move. I wouldn’t begrudge anybody from doing that, myself included.”

At least 50 former legislators are registered as lobbyists in Missouri.They include: former House Rules Chairman Shannon Cooper, whose clients include a drug-maker and the Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce; former Senate President Pro Tem Mike Gibbons, whose law firm represents a long line of clients; and former House Speaker Steve Tilley, who quit his top post to assemble a stable of clients ranging from organized labor to highway contractors.

Rowden’s bill is HB1258. Lager’s bill is SB966.

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Source: Missouri Ethics Commission

Virginia Young is the Jefferson City bureau chief for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.