Back in January, the Missouri House Committee on Telecommunications held a hearing. Four republican legislators were present for the hearing, although they didn’t have any bills before them awaiting action, but they held a hearing nonetheless, with five telecommunications lobbyists there to offer their thoughts on the issues that the committee might be interested in.
The hearing was held not at the capitol, but over dinner at the Jefferson City Country Club, and the lobbyists picked up the tab.
[Yes, the Missouri Legislature has some of the weakest ethics and lobbying rules in the nation. Why do you ask?]
The hearing became an embarrassment to the House republican leadership, and by 10:35 the next morning the Speaker of the House issued an order declaring that all future hearings must be held at the capitol, effective immediately.
These kind of hearings/lobbying efforts have been part of the Jefferson City legislative culture for years. Several weeks earlier, Progress Missouri noted that the very first hearing on the legislative calendar was a similar off-site excuse for a nice meal paid for by lobbyists, and called for an end to the practice.
“The purpose of legislative hearings is to gather input from the citizens of Missouri and develop legislation that benefits them,” Pamela Merritt, Communications Director for Progress Missouri. “Holding sham ‘hearings’ away from the Capitol for the sole purpose of consuming free food and drink from lobbyists is a despicable practice that doesn’t pass the smell test.
“Moreover, the Sunshine Law requires that committee hearings be held in a place to accommodate the public,” continued Merritt. “Last year, we saw with our own eyes sham ‘hearings’ in expensive Jefferson City restaurants that had no place for the public to observe and contribute to the proceedings—probably because the whole ‘hearing’ was a sham set up by lobbyists to shovel more freebies to receptive politicians.”
The statewide media from time to time has tried to make this an issue about how the state government runs, to no avail — until that Telecommunications hearing in late January. Reporters from the state’s two largest papers were at the hearing, and their papers editorialized about this sham the next morning, but they’ve done that before. What was different in this case is that Progress Missouri, a progressive advocacy organization, livestreamed video of the hearing.
This did not go over well in Jefferson City, especially among the republicans in charge of the legislature and all of its committees.
Several state senators seem to understand the power of video quite well, and have been quick to shut down Progress Missouri’s efforts to video their hearings over the last year, citing Senate rules that are aimed at minimizing disruptions. Progress Missouri, after trying to work with the Senate leadership to get better access, stepped up their game this past Wednesday:
Today, Progress Missouri filed suit against the Missouri Senate for its continued refusal to adhere to Missouri’s Sunshine Law. Missouri state senators have repeatedly denied access to public hearings of Senate committees, in violation of state law, and we are escalating our fight for open government.
Our democracy works best when there is transparency and accountability, and the Sunshine Law is a necessary tool to maintain both. Some state senators, including Mike Parson, Mike Kehoe, and David Sater think that the Sunshine Law doesn’t apply to them. They’re wrong.
Public radio station KBIA noted that this has been an ongoing battle with these three committee chairmen, while others have had no problem with Progress Missouri’s video work.
Let’s take a look at the three committees at the center of all this.
Small Business, Insurance and Industry — Chair Mike Parson. On the agenda of this committee are bills to repeal the “prevailing wage law,” weaken the state tort law by making defendants severally liable instead of jointly liable (the current law), shortening the length of time a person can receive unemployment compensation from 20 weeks to as few as 13, and allowing a judge to modify a jury’s award of damages in civil trials involving health care providers.
Seniors, Families and Children — Chair David Sater. On this committee’s agenda are bills to shorten the lifetime cap on receiving TANF benefits, declare that “the liberty of a parent to direct the upbringing, education, and care of his or her child is a fundamental right”, and to prioritize the spending of state family planning money with state-run facilities at the top of the list and non-public, non-rural primary health care facilities at the bottom of the list.
Commerce, Consumer Protection, Energy and the Environment — Chair Mike Kehoe. This committee is considering bills to weaken the state Clean Water Law by saying the state is to keep its waters clean “while maintaining maximum employment and full industrial development of the state” and shall accomplish its work by “all practical and economically feasible” means (Can you say “loopholes big enough to drive a fleet of toxic waste trucks through”? Sure you can), to replace a floor on the per-barrel fee charged for inspections of gasoline and other fuels and oils with a ceiling on those fees, and weakening the schedule of financial audits of solid waste disposal districts.
I can’t imagine why these committee chairs would like to avoid having their committee’s fine work displayed on YouTube for everyone to see.
Charlie Pierce has a regular feature whereby he looks at what’s happening in the state legislatures that he calls “This Week in the Laboratories of Democracy.” The title makes me think that if Jefferson City is a laboratory, it is in desperate need of sanitizing measures, and only the sunshine that Progress Missouri and other groups are trying to shine on the state Senate can clean up the lab.
Progressives in other states, please take note.
h/t to Robert Stinnett for the photo above of the south entrance to the Missouri State Capitol, and used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license. Not evident from the image is whether the sculpture of Thomas Jefferson depicts him as crying or not.