Between 2004 and 2014, lobbyist gifts to public officials in Missouri each year hovered reliably around $1 million, with most of the money going to members of the Legislature. While items like free trips and World Series tickets garnered headlines, the vast majority of freebies came in the form of an endless supply of meals for state legislators.

In 2015, something odd happened. After TV crews showed up to a House telecommunications hearing at a country club where committee members were dining at lobbyist expense, then-House speaker John Diehl banned meals supplied by lobbyists at committee meetings, a longstanding practice in the capital.

Embarrassing scandals (the most prominent of which involved Diehl) directed more public attention to the topic of ethics. More individual legislators declined to accept gifts. By the end of 2015, lobbyist spending totaled $690,000, more than $200,000 below any other year in which records are publicly available, according to a Post-Dispatch analysis of Missouri Ethics Commission data. That takes into account reimbursements from some officials.

Spending has continued to fall. This year, lobbyists have spent about $540,000 on behalf of public officials as of October, the last month for which data was available. Considering the lack of legislative activity in November and December (and the struggles of the University of Missouri’s football and basketball teams, which are often an end-of-year attraction for lawmakers), spending is likely to fall shy of $600,000 by year’s end.

Proposals to put an end to lobbyist gifts to legislators have been a perennial failure in the Legislature. Last session, the House passed a measure to ban gifts, but the Senate watered down the bill before failing to pass it. But with an incoming Republican governor, Eric Greitens, who wants to ban gifts and railed against what he called a “culture of corruption” in state government throughout his campaign, 2017 may be the year that eliminating lobbyist gifts finally makes it across the finish line.

House Speaker Todd Richardson said earlier this year that a gift ban would be the first bill introduced in 2017. Rep. Justin Alferman, R-Hermann, has already pre-filed the bill for the 2017 session.

Alferman said he thinks more public scrutiny of lobbyist gifts and the ban on lobbyist-sponsored meals at House committee hearings are the primary reasons that lobbyist spending has dropped off.

“Whenever I first came to the capital as a staffer in 2008,” he said, “it was the norm, not the exception, that every committee had a meal served it.

“It was much more prevalent in years in the past where a legislator would simply call up a lobbyist and say, ‘I’m taking a couple buddies out. Let me have the credit card,'” he said. “That actually happened.”

Now, he said, more legislators are wary of having too many lobbyist expenses attached to their names.

While data shows individual legislators are accepting fewer gifts, much of the drop can be attributed to the elimination of House committee lunches, as well as fewer meals being provided to the entire General Assembly or to one of its chambers. As a result, the $406,000 lobbyists have spent on food this year is far below past totals.

The second most common type of gift is for entertainment, particularly sporting events. That didn’t drop in 2015, a year when the Cardinals made the playoffs, the Royals won the World Series and the Chiefs won five in a row at home before making the playoffs (which were in January 2016). Many lawmakers attended games courtesy of lobbyists.

But 2016 has been a different story, with entertainment-related spending falling to about $64,000, well below any total since 2004, the earliest year for which data is available. That might be because of heightened reluctance among lawmakers to accept free tickets, though it probably also is partly due to several of the state’s sports teams struggling, not to mention that one of them left for Los Angeles.

ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

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