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One Man’s Mission – Ethics Reform

Missouri is home to some of the weakest ethic laws in the county. The Show-Me-State is the only state in the country that does not limit the amount of money that can be given in campaign contributions and also does not put a limit on the personal gifts that lobbyists can give to legislators.

Jason Kander is Missouri’s Secretary of State, and their top election official. The 32-year-old is leading the charge on a new set of reforms that could transform ethic laws in Jefferson City and beyond. Kander sat down with me for GovLoop’s State and Local Spotlight Interview to talk about why passing ethics reform is one of his top priorities.

“When you have a system that is not working effectively like ours is, then the output of that system is not going to be as good as it can be,” said Kander. “Simply put, when you have good campaign finance and ethics laws you end up having a policy making system that is more likely to take the people’s will into account, not just special interests.”

Kander’s ethics reform bill was filed on behalf by representative Kevin McManus from Kansas City. It’s a 200 plus page bill that focus on three distinct areas:

  1. Effective and enforceable campaign contribution limits.
  2. Added distance between lobbyists and lawmakers.
  3. Empower the Missouri Ethics Commission to effectively enforce the law. The Missouri Ethics Commission is the state level counterpart to the Federal Election Commission.

“We need to make sure as we give the Commission the teeth they should have had all along,” said Kander. “Right now, the Commission has to go to the state legislature every year and make a request in terms of their appropriations. Well obviously the state legislature is one of the bodies that the Commission policies. It makes a great deal of sense to me that they should not be in the position of asking the very people they regulate for the funds. One of the provisions in the bill would make 50% of the fines and penalties that the Commission collects go towards an enforcement fund for the ethics Commission.”

A History of Reform

Prior to his election as Secretary of State, Kander was a freshman Democratic Senator for the Missouri House. Before that he was an Army Intelligence Officer who served in Afghanistan. “My job over there was anti-corruption investigations in the Afghan government. Basically my job was to figure out what bad guys were pretending to be good guys. I came home after that experience and got myself elected to the state legislator. When I got to Jefferson City, I realized there was plenty of anti-corruption work to do here too,” said Kander. “Rooting out corruption, became a major focus for me as a freshman member of the House. Everyone told me it’s 2010, it’s an election year, there is no way you are going to get anything done on ethics reform.”

Kander and a Republican counterpart worked together passed the first ethics reform in about a generation. But only a year later the bill was struck down in the Missouri State Supreme Court. “Frankly I think the leadership over there didn’t want to pass the bill and that is why after a lot of pressure from us and a lot of pressure from the public on the last day of session they felt like they had to go ahead and pass something,” said Kander. “So by that point they had decided to sort of sabotage the bill, so they attached it to a bill that had to do with procurement for state government. There is a Constitutional provision in Missouri that says a bill can only be one subject. The bill ended up being two subjects. The bill went to the State Supreme Court and on a technicality of the two subjects part of the bill, they struck it down. That took us back to square one.”

A Path Forward

“The good news is that through the process we really moved the ethics conversation forward in Missouri. As a result, Missourians are pretty aware that our state has the worst ethics laws in the country. They are very insistent, whether they be democrats, republicans or independents, on seeing a change,” said Kander. “The legislature just needs to do their job. At this point, this issue is only controversial in the state capital. It is the only place in Jefferson city where this is a controversial issue. Literally in the entire state of missouri there is one building where this is controversial.”

If you enjoyed our GovLoop’s State and Local Spotlight interview, you can find more interviews under keyword “Emily’s Corner.”

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