The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Opinion

March 6, 2012

Kevin Wilson, guest columnist: 'Ethics lite' bill should be replaced with real thing

NEOSHO, Mo. — I was surprised when I heard the news that the Missouri Supreme Court had thrown out the ethics law that the General Assembly had passed in 2010.

Not shocked by the decision, but rather that it took them that long to make the decision. Actually, the decision itself was pretty easy to make, and I’m not too sure whether some of those involved in the passage of the law didn’t have that in mind when the debate was raging at the time.

I guess you could say that I had more than just a passing interest in the issue since I was the chairman of the special committee on government accountability and ethics reform, and was intimately involved in passing ethics legislation — until the last two weeks of session.

I probably need to give you a little background so you can understand what happened, then you probably won’t be too surprised either.

A couple of days before the beginning of the 2010 session, a staff member from former House Speaker Ron Richard’s office came to me and asked if I would serve on a committee that was being formed to address ethics. I was already pretty busy with several other committees, but when the speaker asks, you normally say yes.  

What I didn’t realize until the committee was announced was that not only was I on the committee, but I was also going to be chairing it. My only instruction from the speaker was to hammer out a good bill with bipartisan support. And for those of you who know politics, let me tell you that it was not a cupcake committee — it was about as diverse as any committee I served on in my eight years in the House. And it represented well the broad spectrum of political views that we have in this state.

For the next four months we worked together — Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives — to craft a bill that we could be proud of. And we did it. The vote to get the bill out of committee was unanimous. I don’t think anyone thought that could ever happen, but it did, and all because we worked together.

None of us had any illusions that the bill we came up with in committee would sail through the General Assembly unchanged, but I’m not sure any of us were prepared for the political games that took place to scuttle our efforts. There were a lot of people who said they wanted an ethics bill, but in reality, what they wanted was a bill for show.

Let me make it perfectly clear that we still had the full support of then House Speaker Richard (now a senator) in pushing forward. But even the speaker’s power is limited, and those who wanted to thwart our efforts made sure they got their wish: a bill that I referred to as “ethics lite” in a speech that I made on floor of the House.

The bill that we actually voted on did not start out as an ethics bill, and that was what finally killed any of the efforts that so many worked on so diligently for so many hours and months. You see, there is a little thing called a Hammerschmidt rule that basically says that a bill can’t cover more than one subject. While it is sometimes loosely enforced, this particular offense was so egregious that the court had no option but to rule the legislation invalid.

I told the committee at the beginning of the whole process that we had the unique opportunity to do something pure, and that the whole state would be watching us. Well, I guess, for some people, purity and politics don’t go hand in hand — something we see played out on a daily basis at every level.  

But maybe I am being too harsh and perhaps a new ethics bill will be passed to address the issues that are still plaguing our political system. I hope that is the case. There are far more politicians that want to do the right thing than the average citizen ever hears about. Let’s just pray that they can somehow find a way to stop the games.

Kevin Wilson is a former state representative. He lives in Neosho.

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