Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
Mo. Digital News
Missouri Digital News
By Phill Brooks
«RM75»«FC»COL203.PRB - Political Fund Raising and Public Service
The recent stories about some Missouri lawmakers using the legislature's fall veto session as an opportunity for special-interest fund raising represent just the latest in the various means public officials have used public office to raise money.
When I started as a statehouse reporter, what was called the "lug" system to get campaign cash for governors was being phased out.
As it was described to me, some employees in state government's patronage agencies, were required to pay an annual "lug" to the campaign funds of their political bosses to keep their state government jobs.
In an article 15 years ago by the state's archivist at the time, Kenneth Winn wrote that it amounted to 5 percent of the employee's monthly salary.
The lug system is now illegal. It was phased out during the administration of Gov. Warren Hearnes. He had campaigned as a reformer and instituted some major changes in Missouri's government.
But there were limits to how far Hearnes was willing to go.
Hearnes replaced the lug system with his annual birthday parties which required purchase of a ticket to attend. The revenue from the ticket sales went into campaign coffers.
Purchasing a ticket was voluntary. But I always wondered if patronage workers who could be fired on a whim really thought it was voluntary. There sure were a lot of high-level state workers at the one Hearnes birthday bash I covered in 1972.
Some state government agencies continue to be staffed by patronage workers who are not protected by the merit system and, thus, can be fired by a stroke of the pen by an appointee of the governor.
During the Hearnes era and afterwards, legislators followed suit with similar fundraising birthday parties. It was so blatant that tickets were sold by legislative secretaries in their state house offices.
Lobbyists were expected to purchase bundles of tickets.
But as some lobbyists told me, they were not actually expected to attend.
Many of these legislative birthday parties were held in the legislators' home towns, far away from Jefferson City where lobbyists reside.
Legislators actually gained from the no-shows.
Holding the legislators' celebrations away from Jefferson City where most lobbyists lived helped keep down the costs of food and drink -- resulting in a higher profit for legislative war chests.
While the current fundraising receptions before the veto session might appear similar to the old birthday parties, things are a bit more open.
Tickets are not sold in legislative offices, at least not that I've seen.
Further, state law now requires disclosure of campaign contributions and lobbyist gifts.
That transparency is the argument Republican legislators made when they overturned the voter-approved limit on how much any one source could contribute to a politician campaign.
They had a point. As a reporter, I have found it much easier to track special interest money flowing to a candidate today than when special interests had to find a multiplicity of obscure groups and persons to dump money into a candidate's campaign.
The question, of course, is whether voters pay any attention to the sources of these large cash flows into candidates.
Do you ponder what this money is obtaining when a candidate gets hundreds of thousands of dollars from a single source -- as is happening with some of the current candidates for statewide office?
It's a seductively dangerous environment when cash flows into the pockets of public officials from contributors with financial interests in what government officials are doing.
It's a murky road that worries the Senate's new president pro tem, Joplin's Ron Richard.
Asked a year ago why he was pushing ethics reform, Richard was blunt in expressing concern to me that this current system could lead to some of his colleagues landing in prison.
Indeed, the failure to distinguish public service from personal and political profit have sent some major state officials to prison in recent decades including a state attorney general and two House speakers.
[Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and an emeritus faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.]
Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.