Legislative speed bump ahead
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 jno[email protected]star.com.