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Editorial: Eat, drink and be corrupt — the Missouri Legislature's way

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Like the annual late-summer return of some destructive insect, political fundraisers will swarm all over Jefferson City this week, coinciding with the one-day veto session of the Missouri Legislature. Lobbyists will gather in bars and restaurants at the invitation of the lawmakers they lobby. They’ll nibble on hors d’oeuvres, sip beer or liquor and hand over checks, generally tucked into little white envelopes. They’ll eat, drink and revel long into the night. Then, on Wednesday, those lawmakers will head for the House and Senate floors to take votes that may affect the fortunes of those lobbyists.

About half the states in America don’t allow their legislators to fund-raise while they’re in session, in recognition of how much such financial influence looks like legalized bribery. But Missouri lawmakers, seldom concerned with such ethical niceties, have more than two-dozen fundraising events scheduled between Monday and Wednesday, some of them physically within sight of the Capitol or a few steps from the Governor’s Mansion.

Banning this brazen practice isn’t among the batch of ethics ideas being considered as either pending legislation or current ballot measures. Reformers should start laying groundwork to change that.

The annual spate of fundraisers during veto-session week has become a nefarious tradition in Jefferson City. The lawmakers who participate often rake in tens of thousands of dollars each in a few short days, generally comprising their single biggest funding score for the year. A study by the National Institute for Money in State Politics found that, in 2014, Missouri legislators brought in $796,000 in donations during those precious few days.

There’s no reason to believe the envelopes have gotten any thinner since then. As the Post-Dispatch’s Kurt Erickson reported recently, this year’s 25 scheduled events involve more than 70 lawmakers, many teaming up to raise funds jointly.

Some will be held in bars, lending a party-like atmosphere to soften the edges of what’s going on here. Others — like the one with Rep. Shamed Dogan, R-Ballwin, and former Rep. Sheila Solon, running for a St. Joseph-area seat — will eliminate the middleman and invite lobbyists to party right there in the downtown offices of their campaign consultant.

At a restaurant across the street, another joint fundraiser will include Rep. Elijah Haahr, R-Springfield, who is the incoming House speaker next year. Is any lobbyist worth his pinstripes going to miss that one?

Missouri is lax on political ethics in so many ways — unlimited donations, unfettered lobbyist gifts, revolving-door lobbying jobs — that it’s easy for a one-week-per-year embarrassment like the veto-session fundraisers to get put on the back burner by political reformers, both within and outside the Legislature.

But the troubling symbolism alone of this tradition spawns a stink that lingers long after autumn. Getting this unacceptable practice banned before its 2019 return should be on reformers’ agenda.

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