Originally posted by the Columbia Daily Tribune on January 5, 2019
There’s an old joke about state lawmakers that I heard for the first time when I was just a sprout covering the Missouri General Assembly as a journalism student.
It goes something like this:
“How was your session?” one lawmaker asks another as they exit the Capitol Building after the last day.
“Great!” comes the reply.
“Oh, did you get your bills passed?” the first asks.
“No, but I didn’t pay for a single meal,” the second answers.
When the legislature returns to work Wednesday, that joke will fade from memory. Lawmakers will be forced to use their $119.20 daily expense allowance provided by taxpayers instead of relying on lobbyists to keep themselves fed.
Over the past five years, lobbyists reported spending $3.4 million on entertainment, meals and gifts for members of the General Assembly. That total includes $1.1 million in 2017 alone.
The spending included sports and concert tickets, expensive meals, buffets for the entire legislature served in the Capitol Building and the soda, beer, wine and whiskey that stocked members’ offices.
Amendment 1, an initiative petition approved by voters Nov. 6, ends all that. No lawmaker will be allowed to accept anything from a lobbyist valued at more than $5, which as we all know won’t even buy a Venti Teavana Oprah Cinnamon Chai Latte at Starbucks, once you add the sales tax.
Amendment 1 didn’t turn off the spigot right away. It takes 30 days for a constitutional amendment to become effective and the University of Missouri used that time to give five incoming lawmakers, three Republican and two Democratic who had been elected but not yet sworn in, a taste of the pre-Amendment 1 lifestyle. Along with four returning lawmakers, they were treated to tickets to the Tigers’ 38-0 drubbing of the University of Arkansas on Nov. 23, 13 days before the new limits took effect.
Overall, the UM System sponsored $12,278 in meals and entertainment for lawmakers through the first 11 months of 2018, seventh highest among all lobbying principals.
Free tickets to sporting events have always been popular. Sixteen lawmakers received tickets to last year’s 100th PGA Championship at Bellerive Country Club in Town and Country, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported last week.
The high-end restaurant trade that catered to the legislative trade Jefferson City — and to some extent Columbia as well — will feel the loss. Not that the lobbyists themselves won’t have the money to buy gourmet meals and fine wines, but they won’t have the additional guests to fatten the check.
I have to admit that the largesse available in the Capitol Building is a temptation that has, on many occasions, been hard to resist. On any day you might see entire pigs laid out for hungry staff and lawmakers or Tiger stripe ice cream for all.
To satisfy one desire, I visited the Rolling Pin restaurant in Glasgow after seeing the rush to its offerings at the annual “Pie Day.”
But it was never greater than the night that ended my first session as a student.
Lawmakers ended their sessions at midnight at that time and no rules prevented the last-minute distribution of major bills for rushed votes as time expired. Phill Brooks, who ran the Journalism School’s Jefferson City program for decades, assigned me to write a story for the Missourian about the partying that accompanied that frenzy.
House Majority Leader Tony Ribaudo, a St. Louis Democrat, used the dinner break to transform the House lounge into the best Italian restaurant in Missouri for a night, bringing food from the The Hill neighborhood restaurants in dizzying quantities. I had never been to any of the restaurants but had heard of the legendary food to be found there.
Ribaudo, a big friendly fellow, gave me a tour and sought several times to break down my will. My mother made great lasagna from a recipe I still use and I believe the only bad pizza is no pizza.
But my instructions from Phill were simple — observe but don’t take anything.
Now Missouri voters have given lawmakers essentially the same rules.
There will be no Taste of Jefferson City event hosted by the Jefferson City Chamber of Commerce to showcase restaurants and help lawmakers decide their favorites for lobbyist-sponsored dining.
I have to say a word here in defense of the lobbyists. When I have interviewed the professionals who have a long-term stake in their reputations, most didn’t defend the system — they didn’t denounce it too much either, I admit.
Their job is to follow the rules. And as veteran lobbyist Bill Gamble told the Post-Dispatch, that means the limit now is about the cost of a small cup of coffee “and a cheap doughnut.”