December 4, 2016

Letter to the Editor: Working together to pass comprehensive ethics reform

By Jay Nixon

Missourians deserve a state government that reflects their values of honesty, integrity and accountability.  And while there are a great many dedicated public servants in the Missouri General Assembly, their efforts are often tarnished by a culture in which some lose their way.

That is why, when legislators return to the capital in January, few issues are more important than restoring the public’s trust.

Missouri’s ethics laws are the weakest in the nation.  Lawmakers in Missouri can accept unlimited gifts and meals from lobbyists.  They can receive unlimited campaign donations from special interests.

They can pay each other for political advice.  And they can immediately trade in their legislative positions for lucrative lobbying jobs.  This broken system is an embarrassment to our state, an affront to our citizens, and it must be fixed.

Over the past several months, I have been heartened that a broad range of officeholders and candidates from both parties have come forward to express support for ethics reform. 

I would encourage these individuals to go further and adopt specific, detailed proposals for what meaningful ethics reform legislation should contain.

As governor, I am committed to working across the aisle to make state government more transparent, ethical, and accountable to the Missourians we serve.  I have called for comprehensive ethics reform, including strict campaign finance limits, every year since I took office. 

And while I understand that many elected officials in Missouri do not share my support for curbing unlimited campaign contributions, this cannot be an excuse for inaction.

That is why, in addition to restoring strict limits on campaign contributions, I look forward to working with legislators from both parties to pass the following specific reforms into law next year:

      Banning all gifts from lobbyists – period.   That means no more free meals for officeholders catered by special interests and no more special perks at lobbyists’ expense.

      Shortening the legislative session. The purpose of a citizen-legislature is to ensure representatives and senators stay connected with their communities and the issues facing ordinary families.  But the Missouri General Assembly is in session from January through May, nearly half of the year.  Shortening the session will save taxpayers money, sharpen legislators’ focus while in Jefferson City and give them more time to spend living and working in their communities.

  Enhancing transparency. An accountable government is an accessible government. Ethics reform should formally ban the practice of holding legislative committee hearings during the session at private restaurants, country clubs, and other locations that are not accessible to the public.

        Banning officeholders from hiring their fellow legislators as political consultants. This will rein in a practice that undermines transparency and compromises the integrity of the legislative process.

      Closing the revolving door by prohibiting legislators from serving as lobbyists for a reasonable cooling-off period after they leave office.  Preventing lawmakers from cashing in on their public service directly after leaving office will help curb the outsized influence of special interests.

  Enacting reasonable limitations on the campaign accounts of former officeholders. We need reasonable safeguards to prevent former officeholders from using the money left over in their campaign war chests to influence their former colleagues.

  Creating a safer, healthier, more respectful working environment in the legislature.  The behavior described in news accounts towards female interns and employees is unacceptable and appalling. The legislature must foster a healthy work environment, including establishing an ombudsman to oversee the internship program, requiring diversity and sexual harassment training for all officeholders, and strengthening codes of conduct for legislators and their staff.

Missourians overwhelmingly support stronger ethics laws.  The need is clear.  The time is now.  Working together, let’s break the grip of the special interests and enact strong, meaningful ethics reforms that will make Missourians proud.

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