JEFFERSON CITY - The House and Senate have both passed lobbyist gift-ban bills, but the differences in the two versions raise a familiar question: What represents conflict of interest?
While both bills ban lobbyists from buying gifts and dinners for individual legislators, the Senate approach, unlike the House bill, wouldn't completely outlaw the practice.
Under the Senate bill, lobbyists could buy gifts for the full body or standing committees, and legislators still could accept gifts at national or regional conferences.
These exceptions were granted, said Sen. Joe Maxwell, the bill's sponsor, because they have little to do with influence and more to do with citizen involvement. For example, many associations, such as the Farm Bureau or the Methodist Women's Club, host dinners for legislators in which citizens -- not professional lobbyists -- get a chance to talk with lawmakers, he said.
"I think those are healthy things," said Maxwell, D-Mexico. "It encourages citizens from all over the state to participate."
But for Rep. Greg Canuteson, the House bill's sponsor, the Senate approach falls short of truly ending conflict of interest.
"It's very easy for exceptions to turn into loopholes," he said. "I think we've got to move towards zero tolerance. If you're going to do lobby reform, you should do meaningful lobby reform, and not half a measure."
Canuteson, D-Liberty, pointed to the time he brought up the lobbyist gift-ban bill last year as evidence that dinners bought for committees are just as bad as dinners bought for individuals. At the time the bill was before the Judiciary and Ethics Committee, the Missouri Society of Governmental Consultants, the lobbyist group for lobbyists, treated the committee to dinner, he said.
"You wouldn't expect lawyers to take members of a jury out to lunch during a case," said Canuteson. "Because that's how the lobbyists look at us, just like a jury."
But Maxwell said committee dinners do no harm and ending them only raises more questions. For example, he said, if a lawmaker attends one of these dinners to meet with constituents but does not eat, does that mean he or she still has to pay for the dinner?
"We may have two or three a night," he said. "It's just easier to accept them."