Missouri Ethics Commission: Understaffed, Underfunded

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click to enlarge The Missouri Ethics Commission needs some dough!
The Missouri Ethics Commission needs some dough!
Yesterday, state Auditor Thomas Schweich released his report on the Missouri Ethics Commission -- which ought to have been interesting, but mostly wasn't. Turns out the auditor has no right to view the records of any audits or investigations done by the agency, so the juicy stuff about lobbyists and campaign finance, both of which are supervised by the commission, were strictly off limits.

But there was a bit to learn about the workings of this terribly important commission: Mainly, that it's ridiculously underfunded.

As the audit makes clear, the ethics commission was given a crapload of new responsibilities in the 2010 legislative session, including additional abilities to initiate investigations and enforcement of an awesome new law prohibiting money laundering. (Yes, you might think something as tawdry-sounding as "money laundering" would be strictly verboten in a democratic society. But that's only if you've never heard of Tom DeLay.)

The anti-money laundering law bars one political action committee from giving to another. Intra-committee donations are a great way for politicians/ donors to conceal the true origin of controversial or even illegal donations.

But stopping such donations requires enforcement. And, the audit reports, ethics commission staffers believe they don't have enough resources to actually do the work. The agency had been seeking seven new staffers; instead, it got two.

How busy are they? Here's something from the auditor's report that blew our mind a little:

MEC reporting specialists are currently assigned to perform all review procedures, in addition to other duties such as handling phone calls. This includes review of approximately 1,100 monthly lobbyist reports, 9,000 annual personal financial disclosure reports, and 18,000 campaign finance disclosure reports in election years (about 8,000 reports are received in other years). During the two years ended June 30, 2010, the MEC performed 313 reviews of campaign finance reports, 52 of which resulted in investigations.
And that's before all those new responsibilities got added!

So what could Missouri do to better police its ethics, without raising taxes? Turns out there's a handy-dandy little hint buried in the auditor's report.

Namely, we could raise fees for lobbyists.

As the report notes, "According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Missouri's current lobbyist registration fee of $10 per year is one of the five lowest registration fees in the nation (of states with lobbyist registration fees). The national average registration fee is approximately $100 per year."

Last year, thanks to that paltry rate, the ethics commission took in just $12,000 in lobbyist fees. But we did some quick math and learned that, if the fee were raised from $10 to $100 (which is, again, the national average), we'd be talking about $120,000 in revenue.

Is that just us, or would that be almost enough for two more staffers?

About The Author

Sarah Fenske

Sarah Fenske is the executive editor of Euclid Media Group, overseeing publications in eight cities. She is the former host of St. Louis on the Air and was previously editor-in-chief of the RFT and the LA Weekly. She lives in St. Louis.
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