If it’s legal—–

Kevin McDermott at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch did a piece earlier this month (Sunday, July 6) about the campaign fund maintained by former House Speaker Steven Tilley and how he’s using it–not to run for office but to help others who, in turn, spend similar amounts on his consulting services.

McDermott has spent several hours going through campaign spending reports in following the money.   It does not appear that any laws have been broken.  But it is a good picture of the grown-up world of today’s Missouri politics.

You might remember that Tilley quit the Speakership in 2012 before his term was completed so he could immediately become a lobbyist.  Some had thought that he would run for statewide office and his sudden resignation caught them off guard.

He had a big campaign fund but state law does not let him use that money in his new lobbying business or use it personally.  It was Representative Fred Williams of St. Louis who long ago uttered a now legendary question one day during floor debate on a bill whose significance escapes the memory of this aging correspondent: “I know what it say but what do it do?”  McDermott has explored what the state’s campaign finance law allows Tilley to “do.”

McDermott recounts that when Tilley left office, he reorganized his campaign committee to it could continue to take in money and make expenditures, claiming he would be a statewide candidate this year.  But, son of a gun, he didn’t file for office this year.  So he has  reorganized his campaign fund, saying he’s going to be a statewide candidate in 2016.  And if nothing interests him in ’16 he can keep the campaign fund going by saying he’s going to run in 2018.  He’s only 43 years old.  He could be “going to run” for a long time.   The campaign fund is now sitting at $875,000.  And it can still take contributions.

What the law “do” is let Tilley make contributions to other candidates or to political parties.   And this is where things get a little more interesting.  Tilley has donated $125,000 to other candidates.  Legislators he has donated to have paid him $130,000 for consulting.  That’s money he can spend personally.

McDermott recounts the $10,000 Tilley donated to the campaign of Senator Mike Parson who used Tilley’s  consulting company in his campaign.  And the bill for those services came to, just coincidentally we are sure, $10,000.

Another beneficiary of campaign donations is House Majority Floor Leader and Speaker-designate John Diehl, who got $12,000 from the Tilley campaign fund and paid the Tilley consulting company $8,000.  Conflict of interest?   No, says Diehl, who told McDermott that Tilley has made donations “to lots of people”

Words such as “pipeline” or “funnel” or even “launder” might come to mind as one considers how this system works.  We’re not saying those words are appropriate but we cannot guess what you might think as McDermott recounts how the Tilley “campaign fund” works.

McDermott reports Tilley has quit doing consulting work for legislators this year.  But the lobbying business is going well. Remember when the Tesla electric car company was facing some late-session unfriendly legislation?  Tesla hired Tilley to lobby for it.  Campaign finance reports show $10,000 showed up from Tilley in the House Republican Campaign Committee’s account and two days later Diehl announced the Tesla legislation was dead.  Diehl and the House campaign group say there’s n connection.

We’ve heard lawmakers from both parties prattle on and on for several years ago changing laws so that members of the legislature could not go into the lobbying business immediately after leaving office.  But  that’s all it is: talk.  We’ve listened to similar prattling about finding a way to limit big money in political campaigns.

What might be needed is somebody, maybe a former legislator who had accumulated a lot of money by talking about running for a statewide office, who would make contributions to various campaign funds of people who are interested in or who might become interested in campaign and lobbyist reform. And they could hire a consultant–someone who knows how  the system works from the inside, perhaps–to lead a successful effort to reform the system.

But who would want to take food out of their own mouth by doing that?

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Kevin McDermott’s article is useful not because it makes accusations that there is wrongdoing—it does not; it fact it is careful to explain how government really operates within the laws that the participants in these activities write or don’t write.  This is a glimpse behind the curtain.  This is not Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m just a bill sitting on Capitol Hill.”

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You can read McDermott’s entire article at:

http://www.stltoday.com/news/local/govt-and-politics/political-fix/ex-missouri-house-speaker-s-campaign-fund-still-yielding-benefits/article_57be6fa8-d402-5804-ade0-6bb96c722cf8.html

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Public Administration Review’s May/June edition had an article titled, “The impact of Public Officials’ Corruption on the Size and Allocation of U. S. State Spending.”  The author hypothesizes that “public officials’ corruption should cause state spending to be artificially elevated, and to “distort states’ public resource allocations in favor of higher-potential ‘bribe-generating’ spending and items directly beneficial to public officials such as capital, construction, highways, borrowing, and total salaries and wages.”  The report is on the internet if you want to look it up.

Missouri  is 35th according to the index the researchers developed for measuring corruption.  Unfortunately, they did not include campaign donations or campaign committees without a campaign to run in their calculations.   Missouri has no limits on them and those observers who think big money is increasingly pervasive in legislative decisions might want to see a study that makes that circumstance part of the index.

 

 

Guilt by association

We’ve watched this situation develop in our General Assembly for some time and it has reached the point where we just cannot avoid saying something.  But anyone watching the deterioration of our law-making process must find themselves questioning whether it is too easy to buy influence and whether political courage and independence are too easily abandoned.

There is no doubt that the appearance of impropriety has grown in that process.  We say “appearance” because we lack specific proof that votes are being bought, that money is heavily influencing  procedures, or that lawmakers and candidates are lacking the courage to resist offers that will put them in or keep them in positions of power rather than in positions of service.

Power is narrow and self-serving.  Service is broad and self-giving.  There have been growing signs that a line has been crossed and legislative independence has been forfeited, and the basic promise made between lawmaker and citizen that is the oath of office has lost its meaning.

The promise, that oath, is in the Missouri Constitution:  “I do solemnly swear, or affirm that I will…faithfully perform the duties of my office, and that I will not knowingly receive, directly or indirectly, any money or other valuable thing for the performance or nonperformance of any act or duty pertaining to my office, other than the compensation allowed by law.”  (lightly edited.)

Directly or indirectly.   Money or other valuable thing. Knowingly.

The oath of office, like the Pledge of Allegiance and the Lord’s Prayer, is–we fear–a spoken ritual easily recited without consideration of the commitments required by them.  In truth, all of us would probably be embarrassed by how little we think about that kind of thing, how easily we mouth words and move on.   But all three establish principles for the way we live our lives.

Some other time and some other place will be more appropriate for discussions of the philosophies of the Pledge and the Prayer.  Today is a good time to ponder the Oath.

These are painful things to say for someone who has watched this process for four decades. And they are not, I hope, erroneous nostalgic reflections on the good old days.

Politics at the state level have always had their raw edges, a toughness that is not publicly visible to those who see only floor debates and committee hearings.  Influence always has been a presence in the hallways and the offices.  Lobbyists have written bills or substantial parts of them.  Threats of retaliation in campaigns have always been made.  Favors have always been available for exchange.

But today’s climate is noticeably different.  There is a brazenness to the process.  And there is a seeming indifference to it.

Critics of term limits warned that imposition of them would leave lobbyists, bureaucrats, and legislative staff in charge of government because they are perpetual while the people who write the laws serve only for short times.

The first manifestation of that criticism began to materialize when we increasingly heard one lawmaker debating another ask something like, “Have you checked with so-and-so in the hallway to see if this is okay?”   Today the question is seldom asked because legislators have their cell phones in their hands and–often during debate–refer to messages they are receiving from outside the chamber from this or that special interest representative who is saying whether something is acceptable.

The rules of the House and the Senate bar lobbyists from the floors during debate.  The cell phone and texting have made those rules moot.  The lobbyists are in the chambers.  The walls have been breached.

Lawmakers have spoken for several years of reforming ethics laws, limiting outside influences on the role of Senators and Representatives in passing the people’s laws.  Such proclamations are easily made.  But in a world where ethical standards are lacking and the courage to rebuild walls  and to rediscover a level of independence that can exist inside them is in short supply, the proclamations are little more than easily-recited ritual.

Understand this simple fact:  This is the only state that has no limits on political contributions.  This is the only state that has no limits on lobbyists’ gifts.  This is a state that has no limits on legislators holding fund-raising events in Jefferson City during the legislative session.

In recent days, some of our newspaper colleagues who have gone through campaign finance reports have noted the flow of checks to legislators or legislative campaign committees just before or just after significant votes on specific issues.

And four Representatives who had the courage last year to go against party leadership and refused to vote to overturn a veto on a tax cut bill favored by a billionaire GOP supporter now have primary election opponents getting money from an organization heavily financed by the billionaire.   The Kirksville Daily Express reported the other day that Dr. John Bailey, who is running against incumbent Republican Nate Walker–one of those who went against party orders to override the veto last year–has gotten $50,000 of the $65,830 he has reported in contributions from that organization.  Walker, on the other hand, has had to put $70,000 of his own money into his campaign.

What we have written constitutes nothing more than guilt by association, a concern there is an appearance of impropriety, a series of circumstances that only feeds cynicism and distrust from a general public that blames government for whatever social ill personally affects that voter, a voter who believes the words,  “I will not knowingly receive, directly or indirectly, any money or other valuable thing for the performance or nonperformance of any act or duty pertaining to my office, other than the compensation allowed by law” are, if not a lie, certainly hollow.

Notes from the front lines

(being an irregular compilation of miscellaneous things that cross the Missourinet news desk that don’t rise to the level of full bloghood.)

We wonder how many Missourians get automated calls from polling companies that ask people to use the touch pad on their phones to give answers to various questions—and they are so irritated by (a) the call and (b) the automated poll that indicates the interested party doesn’t really care about them enough to have a real person call. And we wonder how many people getting those calls are upset enough that they answer every question with a lie. We wonder if the polling firms that compile the results have a system that factors in the likelihood that people do just that.

We got a call the other day asking us about Amendment 7, the transportation sales tax.

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We wrote a story the other day and all the time we were writing we asked ourselves, “Why are we writing this story?’ It was about a Laclede County man whose death was attributed to the West Nile Virus. He’s the first fatality from the mosquito-borne disease. Last year, two Missouri deaths were attributed to WNV and 29 illnesses.

West Nile deaths have been news stories for years and we have started to wonder why they are news.

We’re about to declare that it isn’t as far as the Missourinet is concerned, and won’t be unless we see the number of cases reach triple or quadruple numbers.

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The next time your state Senator or Representative starts talking about the need for tax cuts for small businesses being essential to a growing economy, consider this:

The Small Business Administration is redefining “small business.” J. D. Harrison of the Washington Post reports the new definition could include a family clothing store or software publisher with income up to $38.5 million a year. He also reports companies can have as many as 1,500 workers and still be considered “small businesses.”

The definitions will apply at different levels to different kinds of businesses.

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And finally–

We hope it’s more than just going through the movements: Springfield will be the host city of the North American Manure Expo tomorrow and Wednesday. These folks seem to have a certain drollness about them. Their website says: “We know your time is valuable. But so is every gallon and pound of manure being applied to your fields. You can’t afford to miss the 2014 North American Manure Expo, the only trade show on the continent to focus specifically on manure management and application issues. It would be a real waste to your wallet.”

Nothing on the webpage indicates if the conference will focus on getting the straight poop about what flows downhill. But there are plenty of Ozarky places in the Springfield area to demonstrate the validity of the long-held belief.

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