Leg­isla­tive speed bump ahead

The Kansas City Star (Sunday) - - LOCAL - By JA­SON NOBLE

Dis­agree­ments on cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion lim­its could threaten progress of Mis­souri bill.

Pro­posed leg­is­la­tion con­cern­ing eth­i­cal be­hav­ior for law­mak­ers has cruised through the Mis­souri House and Se­nate with un­usual speed this year, but progress may be fleet­ing.

Loom­ing ahead is a po­ten­tially frac­tious de­bate on cam­paign con­tri­bu­tion lim­its, a cen­tral is­sue that the Se­nate largely has avoided and the House has pa­pered over in the name of bi­par­ti­san­ship.

“This is go­ing to be the one that makes ev­ery­body a lit­tle nuts,” Rep. Jerry Nolte, a Glad­stone Repub­li­can, said of cam­paign lim­its.

In the House, Repub­li­cans and Democrats alike have praised the work of the Com­mit­tee on Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity and Ethics Re­form, which was formed this year to wade through a cas­cade of bills deal­ing with cam­paign fi­nance, lob­by­ing and the be­hav­ior of law­mak­ers.

The com­mit­tee’s chair­man, Neosho Repub­li­can Kevin Wil­son, broke with tra­di­tion to turn the panel into some­thing of a sem­i­nar on ethics.

Rather than merely hear­ing leg­is­la­tion, amend­ing it and send­ing it to the House floor, the com­mit­tee has de­bated el­e­ments of more than a dozen bills and is now work­ing to con­dense them into a sin­gle bill.

The goal is to send a bill to the full House with bi­par­ti­san sup­port and a min­i­mum of par­ti­san games­man­ship.

“We’ve had an open, hon­est dis­cus­sion and no one has got­ten par­ti­san,” Wil­son said. “I can’t tell you how pleased I have been with how the com­mit­tee has con­ducted them­selves.”

And the process ap­pears to be work­ing.

“I think when that bill comes out of com­mit­tee it will have sup­port of both sides of the aisle be­cause of that process,” said Rep. John Bur­nett, a Kansas City Demo­crat.

Bur­nett, a four-term rep­re­sen­ta­tive with a rep­u­ta­tion for par­ti­san­ship, praised Wil­son and called the ethics dis­cus­sions “the best ex­am­ple of com­mit­tee process that I’ve seen.”

But whether that process will hold up when com­mit­tee mem­bers must agree on cam­paign fi­nance lan­guage re­mains to be seen.

Wil­son has promised that the bill will in­clude lim­its, but there is wide dis­agree­ment among mem­bers as to what the lim­its should be. And some Repub­li­cans have sug­gested they won’t sign on to a bill that in­cludes lim­its.

In the House, Democrats gen­er­ally sup­port lim­its and ar­gue that un­lim­ited con­tri­bu­tions skew the po­lit­i­cal process in fa­vor of wealthy in­ter­ests. Repub­li­cans, con­versely, main­tain that lim­its only drive donors to find loop­holes and ob­scure the source of con­tri­bu­tions.

“I have peo­ple go­ing all the way from the old lim­its to ‘I don’t want lim­its,’ ” Wil­son said. “How do you strike a com­pro­mise be­tween $300 and in­fin­ity?”

Nolte is thought to be the ethics com­mit­tee’s swing vote on the is­sue. He was one of the few Repub­li­cans in 2008 to vote against re­mov­ing lim­its, and he said re­cently that he un­der­stands the ar­gu­ments from both sides.

“I think we can achieve trans­parency and have lim­its,” Nolte said. “I don’t think the two are mu­tu­ally exclusive.”

The com­mit­tee will meet again to dis­cuss lim­its fur­ther and in­tro­duce the con­sen­sus bill that they will move to the House floor.

Once the bill is on the floor, the co­op­er­a­tion and pre­cise lan­guage that de­fined the bill in com­mit­tee could quickly be stripped away, law­mak­ers pointed out.

“On the House floor there’s go­ing to be more of the par­ti­san de­bate and a lot more of the speeches,” Wil­son said. “I have no il­lu­sions that this bill is go­ing to breeze right through.”

No mat­ter what hap­pens in the House, Se­nate law­mak­ers from both par­ties have in­di­cated op­po­si­tion to re­vis­it­ing cam­paign fi­nance lim­its.

The Se­nate gave pre­lim­i­nary ap­proval to an ethics bill Wed­nes­day that does not in­clude lim­its, de­spite at­tempts by Democrats to add them.

Se­na­tors likely will de­bate lim­its only if the House’s bill in­cludes them when it passes into their cham­ber for de­bate. Ul­ti­mately, the is­sue could be set­tled in con­fer­ence com­mit­tee — the leg­isla­tive endgame in which the House and Se­nate ne­go­ti­ate the dif­fer­ences be­tween bills passed in each cham­ber.

The Se­nate bill in­cludes a ban on cer­tain money trans­fers be­tween cam­paign com­mit­tees, a mea­sure in­tended to make the sources of con­tri­bu­tions more open and which ap­pears to have wide sup­port.

It also would al­low the Mis­souri Ethics Com­mis­sion to ini­ti­ate in­ves­ti­ga­tions of ethics vi­o­la­tions and re­quire candidates to re­port do­na­tions of more than $250 re­ceived dur­ing the leg­isla­tive ses­sion. To reach Ja­son Noble, call 573-634-3565 or send e-mail to jno­ble@kc­star.com.

Nolte

Wil­son

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