Originally published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on January 2, 2019
The Missouri Capitol will be missing something in the coming months.
The aroma of barbecue, pancakes and other vittles wafting through the Rotunda is likely to be absent for denizens of the domed building as part of a change to the state Constitution approved by voters in November.
Although it could face a test in court, a possible repeal by frustrated lawmakers and varied legal opinions from ethics regulators, the so-called “Clean Missouri” proposition places a $5 cap on gifts lawmakers can receive from lobbyists.
That means fewer lobbying groups offering free plates of food to lawmakers and legislative staffers during the busy crush of the legislative session that begins Jan. 9 and runs through May 17.
It means no more dinners being purchased by lobbyists for lawmakers at local restaurants or free tickets to baseball games, concerts or golf tournaments.
For lobbyists, lawmakers and restaurateurs in Jefferson City, the changes are significant.
“It’s going to have a dramatic effect,” said lobbyist Bill Gamble, who has patrolled the halls of the statehouse since the 1970s.
During the legislative session, Gamble often supplies thousands of dollars worth of pizza and soda to members of the House and Senate who want to give visiting school children lunch when they tour the building. He also purchases beverages for lawmakers who are holding community events in their districts.
Now, those purchases will have to come out of a lawmaker’s pocket or, perhaps, their campaign fund if it has a political purpose.
“The most you’d be able to do is offer a cup of coffee and a cheap doughnut,” Gamble told the Post-Dispatch.
Rob Agee, owner of Madison’s Café, a popular Italian eatery located near the Capitol, said the gift ban will hurt his business.
“Will it affect me? Sure. It will affect every restaurant in Jefferson City to a certain extent. It will negatively affect the economy of this town,” Agee said.
He said the arrival of lawmakers, staff and lobbyists each year is a boon for the community.
“They do affect the economy. They have to eat and sleep here four days a week,” Agee said.
The new law spawned a humorous new drink at another downtown restaurant.
The Grand Cafe is offering the “Clean Mo Cocktail,” a concoction of rum and lime juice “topped with nothing, no garnish.”
The selling price is $4.63 down from the usual price of $8, in order to keep the drink under the $5 limit.
Last year, lobbyists spent more than $1 million to ply the Legislature and their staff and families with free meals, drinks, sports tickets, rounds of golf and travel.
The expenses in 2018 included nearly $8,000 in tickets to Cardinals games for lawmakers like Republican Sens. Andrew Koenig of Manchester and Dave Schatz of Sullivan and Rep. Bob Burns, D-Affton.
Sixteen lawmakers received tickets to the 100th PGA golf tournament at Bellerive Country Club in Town and Country, according to reports filed with the Missouri Ethics Commission.
And, former Rep. Robert Cornejo, R-St. Peters, received $498 worth of tickets to a concert by country music artist Luke Bryan.
But it’s not just the individual gifts from a lobbyist to a lawmaker that now appear to be a no-no based on the constitutional change.
The Jefferson City Area Chamber of Commerce canceled its annual Taste of Jefferson City event, which is held in January to welcome state lawmakers to the capital city.
“We have consulted with numerous experts to determine if these types of receptions are compliant with Clean Missouri, and unfortunately they are not,” Missy Bonnot of the chamber said in the email to members. “As you would expect, many other communities and entities are canceling similar events held in Jefferson City.”
The Missouri Travel Council also is not planning to offer its annual pancake breakfast in the Rotunda as part of its mission to boost tourism in the Show-Me State.
Some groups are still assessing the effects of the change.
The Missouri Grocers Association, for example, holds a lobbying day each year that includes a breakfast reception for members of the House and Senate.
“Right now we have not made any changes,” said assistant state director Cindy McMillan. “But we’re watching the situation.”
Angela Schulte of the Missouri Cable Telecommunications Association also is assessing whether to hold an event in the Rotunda.
“We’re still kind of on the fence about it,” Schulte said.
The Association of Missouri Electrical Cooperatives is likely to move forward with its annual fish fry because officials say the food is worth less than $5, largely because of the volume of people they serve.
Sean Nicholson, who ran the Clean Missouri campaign, said the lobbying groups could still offer their lunches or dinners as long as they sell tickets, rather than just giving the food away.
That, he said, is how the world works for everyone else.
Or, Nicholson said lawmakers could start brown-bagging it.
“They could pack a lunch for work like everyone else,” he said.
Gamble said he is cautioning his clients about hosting events, saying they should wait until there is a clear legal opinion on what’s legal and what’s not.
His advice: “If you don’t know, don’t do it.”