Missouri Lawmakers Under Fire for Lobbyist-Funded Travel

Tuesday, 22 Apr 2014 09:48 AM

By Sharon Churcher

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Industry and special interest groups spent more than $200,000 in the last three years on trips for Missouri lawmakers.

While lobbyist spending is legal in the cash-strapped state, critics say it can create conflicts of interest and that it encourages legislators to vote on what is best for a special interest rather than for taxpayers.

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch gave as one example a bill pending in the Legislature that would require the state to establish an economic office in Israel at a cost of $250,000 in its first year.

With Missouri struggling to fund basic services, like education and healthcare, this seemed surprising to the newspaper – until it learned that the bill is sponsored by Republican state Sen. Mike Parson.

In December 2012, Parson and a half-dozen other legislators and their spouses traveled to Israel, on a trip partly funded by the Jewish Federation of St. Louis and the Missouri Biotechnology Association.

Three months later, Parson argued that having a beachhead in Israel would be well worth the money, providing "a tremendous opportunity for the state of Missouri" to benefit from Israel’s booming biotechnology sector.

"I don’t think there’s any question that had an impact on me in filing the bill, having the opportunity to go to Israel and see firsthand what they’re doing there," Parson said. "There was more significance to that than just going over there and having fun. It was mainly business ... When you’re talking about a golf trip, that’s a different thing."

Lobbyists also paid for state lawmakers to visit to New Orleans, California, Utah, and Washington state.

John Messmer, founder of Missourians for Government Reform said, "Make no mistake: These are vacations that are masquerading as something else.

"I absolutely understand the need [for legislators] to speak to lobbyists," he said. "My difficulty is when they wrap that 'education' up with some kind of goody, something of value. We all value getting away on vacation."

The Missouri Biotechnology Association specifically dispatched legislators on trips while it sought their backing of the Missouri Science and Innovation Reinvestment Act (MOSIRA).

The measure passed, thanks in part to support from legislators who had enjoyed, or would later enjoy, the association’s outings. It was opposed by pro-life groups who feared it would allow state funds to be used for stem-cell research.

Molly McCann, executive director of one such group, Missouri Roundtable for Life, said  the fight was uneven from the start because of the travel perks for legislators. "We absolutely believe that those kinds of trips were factors" in the passage of the legislation, she said.

When "a lobbyist with an obvious vested interest pays for travel of that kind, it is hard to imagine that the natural reaction is not to be as pliable as possible to the lobbyist’s issues and as helpful to their goals as you can. At worst, it is conceivable that it could act as a kind of bribe."

The law eventually was struck down by the state Supreme Court over a technical issue.

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