By at least two measures, Missouri has the weakest ethics laws in the country. It’s the only state in the union that does not limit campaign contributions. And there’s no cap on gifts from lobbyists to the lawmakers in Jefferson City.
That’s something Jason Kander wants to change. As secretary of state, Kander is Missouri’s top elections official. Since taking office in January 2013, he has made ethics reform a top priority. Now he’s championing a set of regulations that could give Missouri some of the strongest ethics rules anywhere.
Kander’s political identity has long been tied to themes of combating corruption and enforcing the law. The son of a cop and a juvenile probation officer, Kander volunteered for the Army National Guard after graduating from college. Later, after law school, he volunteered for a tour of duty in Afghanistan, where he investigated corruption in the Afghan government. Back home in Missouri, he was elected to the state House in 2008 and again in 2010, before running successfully for secretary of state in 2012. Today, at 32, he’s the youngest statewide elected official in the nation.
In the House, Kander successfully passed a bill making it a felony to funnel campaign contributions through different committees—the state’s first campaign finance reform measure since 1991—although it was later struck down by the state Supreme Court because the reforms were tucked into a larger bill that had nothing to do with ethics. Now Kander is backing a new package of ethics reforms that are best described as sweeping. In addition to caps on campaign contributions and gifts from lobbyists, the bill would require a one-year waiting period before a lawmaker can work as a paid political consultant. One provision would prohibit the governor’s office from promising lawmakers plum appointments in exchange for votes; another would create a special enforcement fund for the state ethics commission.
Since the court struck down Kander’s legislation in 2010, he and Gov. Jay Nixon, a fellow Democrat, have called for another overhaul without success. “The vast majority of Missourians care greatly about this issue and would like to see the legislature address it,” says Kander. “Really, the only place in the state of Missouri where this is a controversial issue is the capitol.” Still, he acknowledges that the effort may be “an uphill battle.”
The bill’s current prospects don’t look great. By the beginning of last month, the measure had only attracted two co-signers. Republicans control supermajorities in both the Missouri House and Senate, and they may be unwilling to give Kander what he wants, especially in an election year, says Brian Calfano, a political scientist at Missouri State University. “It is unlikely that anything Kander says or does will be what makes the difference here.”
Still, some signs point to a potential bipartisan agreement. At least three different Republican senators have introduced separate bills this year dealing with campaign finance or restrictions on lobbyists. “Clearly the [Republican] majority would have to carry legislation if it’s going to come to pass,” says John Lamping, one of those Republican senators.
There’s another more basic issue here as well: It’s hard to get anyone to write themselves more rules. “I am realistic about the fact that it is not easy to get any legislative body to police itself,” says Kander. “There is no interest group in Jefferson City called Big Ethics. I just remind legislators of both parties that this is something that the public expects of all of us.”