Senate postpones vote on lobbyist gift-ban bill

Measure goes too far, some senators says

Scott Sifton

Photo by Barlow Productions

Scott Sifton

By Janie Matthews

JEFFERSON CITY — The Missouri Senate postponed a vote on a House-passed lobbyist gift ban after senators voiced concerns that it went to far.

A vote was suspended after the Senate spent more than three hours debating a bill that would criminalize lobbyists for giving gifts to legislators.

Under the measure approved by the House earlier this year, lobbyists who give gifts to legislators could be punished by up to seven years in prison, with some exceptions.

During Tuesday’s debate, some senators argued the provisions were too broad.

“If we happen to have someone that comes by our office, unknowingly leaves an ink pen or a sticky pad, if that person is unaware, are they still criminally liable?” asked Sen. Jamilah Nahseed, D-St. Louis City.

Under the bill, legislators also could be prosecuted for accepting gifts from lobbyists, which raised questions from several senators.

“I might cut my finger and need a Band-Aid.” said Sen. Dave Schatz, R- Franklin County.

He added that he could come up with numerous things a long the same lines that could be misinterpreted as lobbyists giving what would then be illegal gifts.

“I’m concerned about that,” he said.

Another lawmaker said he worried that if a lobbyist were to purchase pizza for an office and an elected official walked by and ate the pizza because they were unaware of who purchased it, that elected official would technically be liable.

“This is so broad we could drive a truck through (it),” Schatz said.

There was some discrepancy over who exactly would not be allowed to accept gifts from lobbyists. Some senators questioned whether the bill should explicitly include city council members, school board members or staff.

“There’s a difference between those who have the power to execute a decision and those who only have the power to recommend,” said Sen. Ed Emery, R- Lamar.

But some Democrats argued the measure was not tough enough.

“I would probably, and in fact have filed, language that would ban more expenditures than I think this bill does,” said Sen. Scott Sifton, D-Affton, regarding the unspecific provisions of the bill.

Sen. Jason Holsman, D-Kansas City, asked why limits on campaign contributions were omitted from the bill. Sen. Bob Onder, R-St. Charles County, replied by saying the Senate was here to talk about gifts explicitly.

“A million dollar check will have more influence than a $20 lunch,” Holsman said.

Other Democrats, however, voiced concerns the bill would go too far. Nasheed told a story about a young boy in her district who was seen waiting on the bus without a coat on a freezing morning.

“Right then and there he decided to do a coat drive,” Nasheed said in reference to a police officer in her district who happened upon the young boy that morning.

The officer proceeded to call Nasheed and inform her of the coat drive followed by two lobbyists who offered to donate to the coat drive.

“We have a lot of people that are impoverished and sometimes they look for help,” she said. “Those are the types of things that I do sometimes. This bill will impact that.”

Sen. Kiki Curls, D-Jackson County, also voiced concerns about her ability to assist lower income residents in her district.

“I had one of the school principals call me, for instance, and say there was a family that had five kids who didn’t have any money,” Curls said. “It was cold outside and the kids were still wearing flip flops to school, and called and asked if they could get some help or if there was any help that I could give.”

Curls said she understands that those shoes did not have to come from the help of a lobbyist, but she said she wants acknowledgment of some of the circumstantial requests that she and other senators receive.

More than an hour into the debate, the Senate Judiciary Committee chairman sounded the words for delay.

“I think we have a bit of work to do on this,” said Sen. Bob Dixon, R-Greene County.

A bit later, Senate debate on the measure was suspended without a final vote.