A state House proposal aimed at banning gifts from lobbyists to elected officials has taken its first step toward debate by the full chamber.
House Bill 60 is sponsored by Hermann Republican Justin Alferman, who presented the legislation to the House Committee on General Laws.
“We are trying to eliminate the undue influence of lobbyists on legislators in the building. That is the individually, personally consumable gifts from lobbyists to legislators,” Alferman told the committee. “These are the one-on-one dinners, these are the press boxes at sporting events in the state. That’s what we’re trying to limit.”
In addition to the prohibitions on expenditures by lobbyists for elected officials, the bill would remove reporting requirements that would not be necessary with a ban in place. It would exempt from those prohibitions flowers and plants, items such as plaques given to lawmakers recognized by an organization, speaking fees, and items that are returned.
The bill would allow lobbyists to provide meals that are offered to all members of the House and Senate as well as all statewide elected officials. Omitted was a requirement that an invite to those elected officials be made in writing at least 72 hours before the event. Alferman said that will be amended into the bill because it is “vital” that it be included.
“What we’re trying to do is alleviate any possibility that you would have, say, ‘Hey guess what, me and six other people in the General Assembly, we’re going out right now and we’ve got a lobbyist who’s paying for it,’ and you send out an email blast and say you know what, ‘We’ll give you five minutes to show up. Well, no one showed up except us. We’re going to report it to the entire General Assembly.’ That’s wrong and I know for a fact that has happened in the past and you’ve had group expenditures for a meal of ten, or five, or less,” said Alferman.
“Giving the 72-hours written notice … to all members of the General Assembly including, but not limited to the attorney general and the auditor, I don’t think any lobbyist is crazy enough to try to circumvent this statute, if enacted, having to send a copy to the attorney general, the chief law enforcement officer of the state,” said Alferman.
House Democrats said the proposal falls short of being an absolute ban on lobbyist gifts to elected officials, and called for it to be more restrictive.
“What people campaigned on, what our governor-elect campaigned on, and what has been promised to voters is an outright, complete ban and that’s not what this is,” said Representative Lauren Arthur (D-Kansas City). “This has loopholes that you could drive a truck full of swag through.”
Democrats focused their criticism of House Bill 60 on its exemptions.
Arthur asked whether the exemption for flowers could include a lobbyist paying for flowers for a lawmaker’s wedding.
“Flowers are expensive for a wedding and if a legislator decided, ‘I’m really close friends with this lobbyist. They’re attending my wedding and I’d like to ask them to pay for my flowers,’ that no longer becomes a small expense,” said Arthur.
Alferman said in looking at bans in other states, most have an exemption for flowers and plants, “and I don’t think a single legislator told me that they had a problem or that this was a, ‘exemption you could drive a truck through.’”
St. Louis Democrat Tracy McCreery thinks the bill should include a definition of “speaking engagement,” as it allows lobbyists to continue to provide meals to lawmakers at those. She said a definition would tighten up that exemption.
Alferman said he took offense at the use of the word, “loophole,” in describing the exemptions in his legislation.
“By implying that it’s a loophole you’re implying that it was done in a devious nature and deliberately and it certainly was not,” said Alferman. “I’m very open to tightening down any of this language to make it better so long as we are actually moving for progress on this and not just trying to hinder the bill’s success.”
Alferman expects the legislation to have a greater chance of passage this year than in 2016 when it cleared the House but not the Senate. That is due in part to support from Governor Eric Greitens, who after being sworn in today signed an executive order aiming to ban lobbyist gifts to members of his staff.
The General Laws Committee voted to pass HB 60 and it next goes to a hearing by the House Rules Committee, Tuesday afternoon at 1:30.
House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) has said he wants a gift ban bill to be the first thing the House sends the Missouri Senate this session.