House votes to expand definition of ‘service dog,’ criminalize faking a service animal

The Missouri House has voted to expand the state’s legal definition of what qualifies as a “service dog,” and to make illegal the faking of having a service animal.

A service dog, with training that includes waiting patiently for long periods, lays next to its master during a meeting in a hearing room in the Missouri State Capitol. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

House Bills 1369 and 2031 are aimed at making life better for those who legitimately have service dogs and service animals, according to sponsor Chrissy Sommer (R-St. Charles).  She said such people make up a growing segment of society, as the list of conditions dogs can help with continues to grow.

“There are a lot of soldiers, there are a lot of seniors who either have, say, PTSD or some ailment or disability that’s not visible that when they go into the public, even though ADA says these are service dogs, entities or businesses or even individuals don’t understand that because you don’t see a disability; it’s not visible,” said Sommer.

HB 1369 changes the definition of “service dog” to include psychiatric service dogs and mental health service dogs.  The definition covers dogs that serve individuals with conditions including panic attacks, anxiety, autism spectrum disorder, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Sommer said the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has left the definition of what is considered a “service dog” in kind of a gray area, so HB 1369 will make clear what animals qualify as service dogs.

HB 2031 would add to Missouri’s law against impersonating a person with a disability the crime of misrepresenting a dog or animal as a service dog or assistance animal.  It would make those misdemeanors punishable by up to fifteen days in jail, or up to 6 months for repeated violations.

Backers of HB 2031 said when people fake having a service animal it casts doubt on individuals who really do have them.  Sommer said such fraud causes other issues as well, when untrained dogs have been, “attacking service dogs in training, them attacking patrons of a restaurant; airplanes are starting to crack down too because what happens is a service dog goes through training – how to handle and airplane, how to handle that pressure, how to handle the different noises, how to handle that small little area they have to be in, whereas a pet, if you try to bring them on a plane and say, ‘Oh, this is a service dog,’ I mean think of what it does to a person.  They’ll freak out,” said Sommer.

St. Louis Democrat Tracy McCreery said she initially thought HB 2031 was not necessary, but has reversed that opinion.

Representative Chrissy Sommer (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications – click for larger version)

“I think a lot of us see now, when we go out to eat or out into social settings, there seem to be a lot more dogs in places where normally animals are not permitted, like restaurants and things like that, so we need to kind of get a handle on things, if you will.  Several states – I think there have been about 19 states that have cracked down on these fake services dogs,” said McCreery.  “What the lady’s bill will do, I think, is help make things more comfortable for those families and people that actually have legitimate service dogs.”

HB 2031 would require the Commission on Human Rights to use its existing complaint hotline to take reports of individuals believed to be faking having a disability or a service animal.

It would also require the Governor’s Council on Disability to design a placard that restaurants and other businesses could display stating that service dogs are welcome and that misrepresentation of a service dog is illegal.  A brochure would also be created to help business owners know what questions are allowed and guidelines on how to behave around service animals.

Each bill received only one “no” in the House’s vote to send them to the Senate for consideration.

Additional audio:

“Because people are taking untrained pets into public areas and telling people, ‘This is a service dog,’ what happens is the dog that’s not trained, in some situations, they’ll panic, they’ll attack the people around them, they’ll go to the bathroom, they’ll bark, they’ll be disruptive,” said Sommer.

 

 

Bipartisan House bills would close ‘loophole’ that allows domestic abusers to have guns

A bipartisan effort to change Missouri gun laws aims to keep domestic abusers from having firearms.

Representatives Donna Lichtenegger (left) and Tracy McCreery co-present their bills aimed at keeping guns out of the hands of individuals with a history of domestic violence. (photo; Chris Moreland, Missouri House Communications)

House Bills 2276 and 1849 are sponsored by Representatives Donna Lichtenegger (R-Jackson) and Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis), respectively.  Both bills would expand the crime of unlawful possession of a firearm to include those who have been convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors or who have a full order of protection against them.

Representative Lichtenegger said the issue is personal for her because of her own experience with domestic violence.

“When I was four I can vividly remember my mother getting beaten nightly by my drunken father.  Because of that I ended up in a children’s home because he threatened to throw acid in my face,” said Lichtenegger.  “When I was 15 or 16 – don’t remember the age, really, because I don’t remember the night very well – but someone came into my room and beat the crap out of my head.  There’s just no other way to put that.”

Both representatives say the bill would fill in a “loophole” in Missouri law created by the passage of Senate Bill 656 in 2016.  Under the state’s original concealed carry law, Missourians who were found guilty of a domestic violence misdemeanor or who were subject to an order of protection were denied concealed carry permits.  That prohibition was nullified by SB 656.  Federal law denies guns to those with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions or full orders of protection against them, but since Missouri law doesn’t, only federal agents and courts can pursue such cases in Missouri.

“This has been part of federal law since 1997 but the only place that it appeared in Missouri law prior to the enactment of SB 656 was in our CCW chapter, so when we passed 656 we kind of accidentally took those protections out,” said McCreery.  “This actually, truly is an issue that shouldn’t be about political party, so I hope the fact that we’ve worked together on this kind of symbolizes how this is just a good, sensible public policy.”

The bill was presented Tuesday night to the House Committee on General Laws.  Several advocates for domestic violence victims told lawmakers they strongly support the legislation.

Judy Kile, Executive Director of COPE, a shelter in Lebanon, told the committee her twin sister’s husband shot and killed her in a murder-suicide.  He had a history of domestic violence.

“Yesterday was our birthday but one of us isn’t here,” said Kile.  “We need to get the guns out of their hands if they are known to be domestic violence offenders.”

Carla Simpson, who works for New House Shelter in Kansas City, said her sister’s husband also shot her to death in a murder-suicide.

“My brother-in-law was pretty much a law-abiding citizen except for the domestic violence; except for the abuse he caused my sister and he had been to court and he had been convicted of domestic violence,” said Simpson.

She said if a judge had been able to order that her brother-in-law not be allowed to have guns, “I think that Mike would have thought twice about having guns in his house and my sister may still be alive today.  I’m here in her memory.”

Both bills also make gun possession illegal in Missouri for those who are unlawfully in the country or have renounced his or her citizenship.

No one spoke against the proposals in Tuesday night’s hearing.  The committee has not voted on either bill.  Last year similar legislation received a hearing by a House committee but that panel did not vote on it.

Missouri House again fast-tracking ban on lobbyist gifts to legislators

Missouri House leadership is working to again make a proposed ban of gifts to lawmakers the first bill of the session to leave that chamber.

Representative Justin Alferman (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Representative Justin Alferman (R-Hermann) is sponsoring House Bill 1303 which is based on the gift ban proposal passed out of the House in 2017.  That bill, HB 60, was the first sent out of the House in 2017 but was never voted on in the Missouri Senate.

On Monday two House Committees held hearings on, and voted to pass, HB 1303.  It is expected to be debated Wednesday by the full chamber and could be sent to the Senate on Thursday, in keeping with House Speaker Todd Richardson’s (R-Poplar Bluff) statement on the opening day of the session that he expected that bill to be voted out this week.

House Democrats questioned several provisions in the legislation including one that aims to restrict the cost of gifts that would still be allowed under the legislation – things like plaques and awards.

Representative Tracy McCreery (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

St. Louis Democrat Tracy McCreery was concerned that the language of the bill would lead to fewer items falling under mandatory reporting by lobbyists, instead being included in legislators’ personal financial disclosures.  She said those disclosures by legislators are less accessible by the public.

“What I’m trying to do is make sure by fixing one thing we’re not opening up another opportunity for abuse where all of a sudden things are considered to be awards,” said McCreery.

“Honestly, Representative, in dealing with this type of ethics reform it’s always going to be whack-a-mole,” Alferman told McCreery.  “Anyone who is decisively trying to circumvent ethics laws is already an unethical person and it’s really hard to be able to think about every which way those type of individuals are going to circumvent the law.  I’m trying to capture the 98-percent of problems that will be alleviated with this bill.”

Amendments offered by McCreery and other Democrats were voted down along party lines, but the bill was passed out of the Committee on General Laws 12-0.  One Democrat said that even without the changes they wanted to see, the bill would still be an improvement over current law.

HB 1303 would still allow lobbyists to make expenditures to the entire General Assembly – things like a dinner to which every member of the House and Senate are invited.  Members would have to have at least 72-hours’ notice before such an event, and it must be held in-state, so that all lawmakers would have the opportunity to attend.

“I just don’t want us to get into a ‘gotcha’ moment for going to something like a Missouri Chamber dinner or something of that nature that we’ve all been invited to.  I don’t think anyone’s going to say that there’s an influence being levied at those large events.  You don’t have the one-on-one interaction like you do if a lobbyist takes you out for a dinner where 100-percent of their focus is on you,” said Alferman.

Last year’s legislation, HB 60, was passed out of the House 149-5.  Alferman expects similarly strong, bipartisan support for HB 1303.

Despite Governor’s call, House postpones utility modernization debate to another day

The state House has worked to answer Governor Eric Greitens’ (R) call to an extraordinary session on one of the two issues he set before it, but not the other.

Representative Jay Barnes (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Jay Barnes (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

It sent to the Senate on Wednesday a bill that would let the Public Service Commission (PSC) consider lower rates for new facilities that use more than 50 megawatts of electricity per month.  It was prompted by two companies – one looking to restart an aluminum smelter near Marston; the other saying it will build a new steel mill at New Madrid.  Both are in Southeast Missouri where lawmakers agreed jobs are needed badly.

Earlier story:  House uses special session to pass bill aiming to bring jobs to Bootheel

The House did not include language that would give utilities more leeway to set new rates ahead of new infrastructure investments.  That was part of Greitens’ call, but the issue is considered controversial and lawmakers in the House thought including it would keep the rest of the legislation from passing in the Senate.

Some lawmakers, however, said the issue is one that needs to be discussed.

“I think our state needs to have a conversation about energy policy for the next 40 years and not just the next four months,” said Representative Jay Barnes (R-Jefferson City), who brought the infrastructure-related language to the floor in order to have legislators discuss it before he withdrew it.

Barnes said the language that was originally in House Bill 1 was too broad, and instead supports legislation that would allow the PSC to consider increasing rates ahead of improvements to power grids and other infrastructure in order to pay for those improvements.

“At least for one utility in this state there are four coal plants that are on average at least 50 years old.  Some of those need retrofitting and there are those in American society who would want those closed down altogether,” said Barnes.  “Half of the substations for the utility company that services my area are over 40 years old … much of the electrical infrastructure underground in St. Louis that supports our state’s biggest city is 80 to 100 years old.  As a state we are living on the investments of our grandparents … there are tough decisions to be made about how to modernize that infrastructure.”

Critics like St. Louis Democrat Tracy McCreery say what Barnes is discussing would give a “monopoly utility” the chance to get “extra money.”

“That’s what grid modernization is.  It’s the ability for them to get money ahead of time and faster in order to do things that I think they should be doing already,” said McCreery.

Representative Tracy McCreery (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Tracy McCreery (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Barnes said he hopes the legislature will revisit the discussion of grid modernization incentives.  House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) agrees.

“I think the State of Missouri needs to have a longer-term conversation about energy policy and what that needs to look like.  The status quo with energy policy right now isn’t working particularly well,” said Richardson.  “Our ratepayers in Missouri are seeing significant increases almost every 12 to 18 months.”

Richardson said the House in this week’s special session was focused on passing the other issue called for by the governor so those two companies would not pull out of plans to come to Missouri.  Barnes noted grid modernization legislation in the past has been “stymied” in the Senate.

House uses special session to pass bill aiming to bring jobs to Bootheel

The Missouri House worked quickly this week to let the Public Service Commission (PSC) clear the way for some 500 or more jobs in Southeast Missouri.

Representative Don Rone (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Don Rone (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The House has passed to the Senate a bill that would let the PSC consider lower utility rates for two companies – one that says it will reopen the Noranda aluminum smelter near Marston; the other saying it will to build a new steel mill at New Madrid, both in Southeast Missouri.

Both companies want lower utility rates that would allow those facilities to be profitable.  House Bill 1’s main provision would allow the PSC to consider whether to grant those rates.

Its sponsor, Representative Don Rone (R-Portageville), spoke passionately numerous times to his colleagues about the need for jobs in his region and the need for this legislation.

“On behalf of the people from my district I want to thank everybody in this body on both sides of the aisle whether you voted for it or against it, that’s fine.  The outcome was good for my people,” said Rone.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) said it is poetic that one of the facilities will be in an industrial park that bears the name St. Jude.

“I cannot think of anything more appropriate than to have the patron saint of lost causes be the location for this extraordinary project,” said Richardson.  “If you travel across rural Missouri there are people that believe industry is never coming back to rural Missouri … but the notion that we cannot bring industry and we cannot bring business back to rural Missouri is wrong, and we’re going to show it today.”

Similar language passed out of the House during the regular session 148-2, but did not pass out of the Senate.  Governor Eric Greitens (R) called legislators back to Jefferson City to reconsider the issue, and it was met with less support.

Some Democrats, including Fred Wessels (D-St. Louis), said granting lower utility rates doesn’t make sense when the state has other incentives to help lure businesses to Missouri.

“This is a nutty way to do business when you have alternative sources,” said Wessels.

Representatives Judy Morgan (D-Kansas City) and Sarah Unsicker (D-St. Louis) were among Democrats who didn’t feel comfortable with the fact that the name of the company proposing the steel mill hasn’t been shared publicly.

“I was just so uncomfortable with the fact that there was no guarantee on the number of jobs, there was no guarantee on a clawback provision, there was no guarantee on a salary … I think I would’ve supported the bill if it had some of those items in it,” said Morgan.

“We’re letting this unknown company dictate the terms of the negotiation without holding their feet to the fire to say, ‘You need to do what you’re promising,” said Unsicker.

Representative Fred Wessels (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Fred Wessels (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Some Democrats also contend that if the PSC grants a lower utility rate for those two companies other Ameren customers will have to pay more to make up the difference.

“My constituents, our constituents, don’t really care whether they’re writing a check to the IRS or the Missouri Department of Revenue or to Ameren, I mean it’s still money,” said Representative Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis)“Should we be doing economic development on the backs of people who pay their electric bills, and is that the right way to make policy for this state?”

Rone said there’s no way to know for sure whether Ameren customers’ rates will increase.

“Everybody’s assuming – they don’t know.  What crystal ball are they looking at?” asked Rone.  “I’ve been working this since last January and I can’t tell you what the average rate is at that location.”

The special session was called by Greitens one week after Rone called attention to the issue in a passionate floor speech, in which he called several senators “heartless,” and “selfish,” for rejecting his proposal.

Rone’s bill goes to the Senate on the strength of a bipartisan 120-17 vote.  It includes a clause that would make it effective immediately upon being signed by the governor.

House budget plan targets Conservation Department’s deal with former director

The state House is poised to send to the Senate a budget that would cut $500,000 from the Department of Conservation.

Representative Craig Redmon (R-Canton), who chairs the budget subcommittee that oversees Conservation, proposed the cut.  He said it is in response to the Department having paid $127,000 plus benefits to former director Robert Ziehmer since he left the Department in July.

“There was a deal struck, unbeknownst to myself or the budget chairman [Representative Scott Fitzpatrick], where they continued to pay the director a salary and didn’t inform us, and it was contrary to what they had in their policy,” said Redmon.  “We feel like this is a blatant disregard for the House of Representatives so this is a message sent to the Department of Conservation.”

Representative Michael Butler (D-St. Louis), the top Democrat on the House Budget Committee, argued Ziehmer had earned his settlement

“I’d like to ask the body to imagine if they were a director of an agency.  They are taking a lot less money than what they’re worth.  They work in an agency for 30 years and they are forced out politically from that agency,” said Butler.

Redmon said it is not clear why Ziehmer left the Department, and said his committee is still trying to find out.

St. Louis Representative Tracy McCreery (D-St. Louis) said Redmon’s amendment represents a punishment greater than the perceived offense.

“I think you’ve succeeded in getting the attention,” McCreery told Redmon, “but I think that what you’re going to do to the Department of Conservation is in the wrong spirit.  We do not use the budget to punish a few commissioners by punishing all the employees in the department.”

Redmon noted that the budget must next go to the state Senate, and that $500,000 could be restored depending on what the Department tells lawmakers.

The budget for the Department of Conservation is laid out in House Bill 6.

Missouri Legislature approves House Bill to toughen penalties for illegal herbicide use

The legislature has passed a House bill that would toughen penalties for those who illegally apply herbicides.

Representative Don Rone says hundreds of farmers in the Bootheel suffered damage due to illegal herbicide use.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Don Rone says hundreds of farmers in the Bootheel suffered damage due to illegal herbicide use. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

House Bill 662, sponsored by Portageville Republican Don Rone, was filed in response to incidents last year in which farmers applied the product dicamba, resulting in damage to neighboring farmers’ crops that used seeds not resistant to that herbicide.  With Thursday’s vote, the bill goes to Governor Eric Greitens (R) for his consideration.

Under the bill if the Department of Agriculture finds someone has used a particular herbicide on a crop for which its manufacturer did not intend its use, the Department can fine that person up to $10,000.  If that person violates the bill’s provisions twice in three years, the fine can be up to $25,000.

The House had proposed fines up to up $1,000 per acre on which the herbicide had been applied and up to $2,000 per acre for what the bill terms “chronic violators.”  The Senate changed those fines and the legislature adopted the Senate’s version.

Rone explained the Senate’s proposal could actually be tougher on a violator.

“When you put that into a per-violation, it will become a larger penalty than we had at $1,000 an acre,” said Rone.  “What I mean by that is if you look at this document that I just received at our local distributor, there’s 11 items on here that you have to do to use the compound of dicamba.  Each one of those, if you don’t do that, is a violation.  So this, if you didn’t  do any of these things that the label requires you to do, that’s $110,000 for a field, so they really did increase the ability to fine someone for the illegal use of it.”

Rone said farmers whose crops are damaged by improper herbicide application could still go to court to seek civil penalties against those responsible.

After the House agreed with the senate and approved House Bill 662, House Speaker Todd Richardson signs it so it can be sent to Governor Eric Greitens for his consideration.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
After the House agreed with the senate and approved House Bill 662, House Speaker Todd Richardson signs it so it can be sent to Governor Eric Greitens for his consideration. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

The bill includes an emergency clause, which means it would become effective immediately upon being signed by Governor Greitens.  Normally legislation goes into effect on August 28 unless otherwise specified.

St. Louis Democrat Tracy McCreery said that emergency clause is important.

“It’s because we’re dealing with planting seasons and growing seasons and that kind of thing, so this absolutely, for it to have any teeth, has to go into effect before August 28 or we will have missed our window of time to make a difference,” said McCreery.

The bill also gives the Department additional powers to investigate claims of illegal uses.  Farmers penalized for illegal uses would be liable to the Department for its expenses and for personal property affected.

Fines collected under HB 662 would go to the school district local to the effected farms.

A University of Missouri Extension plant sciences expert told lawmakers 150 or more farmers last year lost an average of 35-percent of the crops when wind and temperature changes caused illegally applied herbicide to spread onto nearby fields.

Though such improper use of herbicides is illegal, Rone said many farmers would still do it if it offered them an advantage because current fines are not enough of a deterrent.

The House voted to pass HB 662, 143-12.  Governor Greitens could sign the bill into law, veto it, or allow it to become law without taking action on it.  Rone and other legislators are hopeful he will sign it into law in time for farmers to begin work toward planting season.

Earlier stories:

Missouri House proposes bigger fines for illegally applying herbicides, after Bootheel farmers’ losses

House asked to consider tougher penalties for illegal herbicide use that cost farmers crops

Missouri House asked to consider multiple ethics reforms

House lawmakers continue to lay out a slate of proposed ethics reforms they believe would help restore the public’s trust in Missouri’s elected officials.

Representative Kip Kendrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Kip Kendrick (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Columbia Democrat Kip Kendrick presented to the House Committee on General Laws, House Bill 217, an omnibus bill encompassing a series of measures offered by other members of his caucus.  He said each proposed reform is based on promises made by candidates during the recent campaign cycle – promises that he says were endorsed by voters based on which candidates made those promises and won.

“There is the appearance, obviously, of corruption. There’s a lack of trust – I believe that we all see it – a lack of trust that the people have in how the processes unfold here at the State Capitol, at the federal level as well,” said Kendrick.  “The bill before you, make a strong argument that it’s an aggressive and comprehensive anti-corruption, reform bill.”

Two key provisions would build on work already done by the House toward ethics reform that House Democrats say they want to take farther than earlier proposals.  One aims to ban gifts and monetary donations from lobbyists to elected officials.

Kirkwood Democrat Deb Lavender is carrying the Democrats’ version of a proposed gift ban, House Bill 212.  She told lawmakers her bill would be tougher than House Bill 60, passed two weeks ago by the House.

Kirkwood Democrat Deb Lavender is carrying the Democrats’ version of a proposed gift ban, House Bill 212.  She told lawmakers under House Bill 60, passed two weeks ago by the House, organizations could exploit a provision that lets them provide meals for legislators at events as long as all members of the General Assembly and all state lawmakers are invited.

      “I have been invited to a Bar Association Dinner in Kansas City.  I’ve now been invited to one in Jefferson City and I’ve been invited to one in St. Louis.  A year ago I was invited to the one in St. Louis,” said Lavender.  “So as the entire General Assembly has now been invited to all three events, and perhaps more, here is how the Missouri Bar Association is already working around a bill that has passed on our floor; how they can still take you out and buy a meal and report it to the General Assembly so there’s no individual accountability.”

The other provision proposes extending the prohibition on elected or appointed officials or legislators becoming lobbyists from six months to five years after their term has ended, and would apply that to certain legislative staff.  It is also found in House Bill 213, sponsored by Representative Joe Adams (D-University City).

“This is what [Governor Eric Greitens] suggested in his campaign as he was running for the office, head of the state, so basically using his words,” said Adams.

Other provisions in HB 217 propose prohibiting any candidates’ committees from transferring their funds to their candidate’s family members; requiring former candidates to dissolve their candidate committees; and letting the Missouri Ethics Commission prosecute criminal cases and initiate civil cases if the state Attorney General declines to pursue either regarding an alleged ethics violation.  Those provisions are found in House Bill 214 (Tracy McCreery), House Bill 215 (Mark Ellebracht), House Bill 216 (Crystal Quade), respectively.

Representative Shamed Dogan (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Shamed Dogan (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

Republicans have their own proposals to further reform Missouri ethics laws.  Ballwin Representative Shamed Dogan wants to ban gifts from lobbyists to local government officials.

Dogan said such officials are held to a much lower standard than legislators.

“I was an alderman in my city before being elected to this position, and we had a trash contract that was before our city.  I subsequently found out, after we’d passed this trash contract on a no-bid basis, that our City Administrator had been lobbied by that trash company by taking him to game seven of the World Series in 2011,” said Dogan of his proposal, House Bill 229.

Republican Tom Hurst (Meta) presented House Bill 150, which would exempt individuals not paid to lobby from having to register or report as a lobbyist.

Hurst said he wants members of the public to know that they can talk to elected officials about issues that concern them without having to file as a lobbyist, and without fear of being prosecuted for failing to file.

“The gray area tends to make people that I talk to wary about what they think happens in this Capitol and what they can do, legally, without getting in any trouble,” said Hurst.

Republican Jean Evans said the bill could raise more issues.

“So what’s to keep someone who’s not registered as a lobbyist, who’s not paid, from, say, giving lavish gifts to a legislator that’s not being reported in order to affect some sort of change in legislation or in order to, say, perhaps influence a decision on procurement whether it’s at the state or local level?” asked Evans.

The committee has not voted on any of those bills.

House Speaker Todd Richardson (R-Poplar Bluff) and other legislative leaders have said ethics reforms would continue to be a priority in the 2017 session.

House proposal to ban lobbyist gifts advances through first committee

A state House proposal aimed at banning gifts from lobbyists to elected officials has taken its first step toward debate by the full chamber.

Representative Justin Alferman said HB 60 is nearly identical to a gift ban proposal he filed in 2016, which was passed out of the House with 147 votes in favor.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Representative Justin Alferman said HB 60 is nearly identical to a gift ban proposal he filed in 2016, which was passed out of the House with 147 votes in favor. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

Democratic Representatives Tracy McCreery, Lauren Arthur, and Peter Meredith were critical of HB 60 saying it falls short of being an all-out ban of gifts from lobbyists to elected officials.  (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)
Democratic Representatives Tracy McCreery, Lauren Arthur, and Peter Meredith were critical of HB 60 saying it falls short of being an all-out ban of gifts from lobbyists to elected officials. (photo; Tim Bommel, Missouri House Communications)

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.

“I have been at a conference before where the host of the conference set aside time for every elected official in the room to speak for a minute or two so it could qualify,” said McCreery. 

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.