Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon made another push Wednesday night to tighten Missouri's ethics laws, delivering his final State of the State speech to a Republican-led Legislature under heightened scrutiny following scandals that prompted the resignations of two lawmakers.
Nixon, who leaves office in January 2017 because of term limits, cited big checks to candidates from donors and lobbyist gifts as giving the perception of undue influence on public officials, and he criticized the current policy that allows lawmakers to hire each other as political consultants.
His speech Wednesday night echoed parts of his first address to lawmakers after assuming office in 2009, when he implored the Legislature to "pass a real campaign finance reform bill." He has called for some kind of ethics revamp in every State of the State since.
"Missouri's ethics laws are a disgrace, the weakest in the nation," Nixon said. He went on to say Missouri needs to "clean up its act."
Missouri is unique as the only state with the trio of unlimited campaign contributions, uncapped lobbyist gifts to lawmakers and a revolving door that allows lawmakers to immediately become lobbyists after leaving office.
The previous House speaker, Republican John Diehl, stepped down on the last day of the 2015 session after admitting to exchanging sexually suggestive texts with a Capitol intern. Former Sen. Paul LeVota, D-Independence, resigned months later amid allegations that he sexually harassed interns. He denied those claims.
While proposals to ban gifts and close the revolving door are moving forward, measures on contribution limits have not yet received a hearing and appear unlikely to pass. Legislative leaders have not cited curbing campaign donations among their top priorities this session.
But the fast pace of legislation on a gift ban and the revolving door is significant, and could mean Nixon after years of calls for action finally signs legislation to change state ethics laws.
Support from Republican House and Senate leaders, who have similarly said ethics is a top priority this session, also is meaningful in a political atmosphere in which Nixon and lawmakers at times are at odds.
For example, Nixon and House Speaker Todd Richardson, who was to give the Republican response to the governor's speech, clashed on several points during their addresses.
Where Nixon called again to expand eligibility for Medicaid health care, Richardson criticized spending on the program and promised to pass a law "requiring state agencies to fact check applicants" for Medicaid. When some House Democrats stood and applauded Nixon's calls to bar discrimination against LGBT people, Republicans sat silent.
Both Richardson and Nixon cited finding a way to pay for repairs to the state's aging roads and bridges as a priority, but the two differed on how to accomplish that.
Nixon said he backs a Republican senator's bill to increase the gas tax by 1.5 cents-per-gallon for gasoline and 3.5 cents for diesel. Richardson says he and Senate leaders are throwing support behind reinstating a cost-sharing program between the Missouri Department of Transportation, with the idea of splitting the costs of road and bridge repairs with cities and other local governments.
Richardson, according to a copy of his remarks distributed to news organizations before delivery, also more broadly criticized Nixon for what he called lack of leadership.
"Each January he comes to the General Assembly and promises to meaningfully engage on the challenges facing Missouri," Richardson said. "With few exceptions, he has failed to deliver on that promise."
But it appears Nixon and the Republican-led Legislature, which has the numbers to override Nixon's vetoes if the GOP sticks together, have common-ground on revamping ethics laws.
Nixon in his address thanked Richardson, who in particular has led efforts to change state ethics laws. He added that "we're long way from the finish line."
"Let's come together, restore the public's trust and pass real ethics reform now," Nixon said.