Missouri legislators attempt to fix hobbled ethics law

Missouri legislators are trying to fix part of a 2010 ethics law that a judge recently declared unconstitutional for infringing on the free-speech rights of some banks to contribute money to political action committees.

But key lawmakers appear less inclined to try to revive the entire ethics law, which also required quicker public reporting of contributions during the legislative session and gave the Missouri Ethics Commission greater powers.

A Senate committee heard testimony Tuesday on a House-passed bill that would reinstate last year’s restrictions on shuffling money among political action committees, with new wording that no longer would prohibit state-chartered banks and certain utilities from making contributions to such committees. But there was no discussion about expanding the bill to reinstate other provisions struck down last week by Cole County Circuit Judge Dan Green.

The judge ruled that the ethics legislation — which was amended to a bill originally dealing with state contracts — violated the Missouri Constitution’s requirement that bills address only a single subject clearly expressed in the title.

Before Green’s ruling, the Missouri House already passed legislation to undo the prohibition on banking contributions, which some have described as a drafting mistake instead of an intentional part of last year’s bill.

The sponsor of the 2011 legislation, Rep. Jason Smith, R-Salem, said Tuesday that he would prefer to keep his bill narrowly tailored instead of trying to use it to revive last year’s entire law. He said the restriction on banking contributions clearly appears to be unconstitutional, but he said there’s a greater chance that the rest of the law could be upheld when Attorney General Chris Koster appeals the court ruling.

Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey, R-St. Charles, is chairman of the Senate rules and ethics committee that heard testimony Tuesday. Dempsey said he also would prefer to keep the legislation focused on fixing the banking provision, so that the correction doesn’t get bogged down by a potentially more contentious debate about reinstating some of the other provisions from the 2010 law or by proposals to impose general campaign contribution limits.

Smith’s legislation drew support Tuesday from lobbyists for various banking associations, credit unions and electric cooperatives and also from a lobbyist representing an association of lobbyists.

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