Private Trough: Legislators Unlikely to Halt Feasts Paid for by Lobbyists

Article excerpt

Wearing white plastic bibs, legislators cracked open their lobsters and dipped the succulent meat into melted butter. Large dishes in the middle of each table quickly filled up with shells.

Between bites, state Rep. Bubs Hohulin, R-Lamar, was asked how many he'd had.

"I've lost count," he said.

Hohulin was among about 20 Missouri legislators at the 10th Annual Maine Lobster Dinner for the House and Senate banking committees and legislative leadership. The soiree, held Tuesday evening at a Jefferson City hotel, cost $3,768. The Missouri Financial Services Association picked up the tab.

The association represents 20 companies in the consumer loan and home-equity loan business - Beneficial Corp. and Household Financial Group Ltd. among them. Such companies often have a stake in bills before the banking panels.

Two legislators want to end such lobbyist-paid feasts. But they say their proposal is probably dead for this year.

The House Judiciary and Ethics Committee approved it March 28, but House Speaker Bob F. Griffin, D-Cameron, has yet to place it on the debate calendar. With only five weeks remaining until adjournment, "it's too late" to pass it, says one sponsor, Rep. Steve McLuckie, D-Kansas City.

The bill would ban lobbyist-paid meals unless the entire Legislature was invited or the meal was a "working lunch or dinner" for a committee. Each committee member's meal could not exceed $15 and the sponsoring lobbyist could have no interest in bills before the panel.

Some legislators say the proposal will stand a better chance next year, especially if a new state commission raises legislators' salaries and daily expense allowances. "Until those are addressed, we shouldn't eliminate meals," says state Sen. Mike Lybyer, D-Huggins, who attended the lobster dinner.

State voters authorized the pay commission in November, but it has not been appointed. Members will include one retired judge, 12 people picked by the governor and nine - one from each congressional district - selected at random from voter registration rolls by the secretary of state.

Appointments must be made by Feb. 1; a salary schedule is due Dec. 1, 1996, and takes effect unless the Legislature vetoes it.

Now, legislators draw $23,491 a year in salary for the part-time jobs. The Legislature meets 4 1/2 months a year.

They also get $35 a day to cover living expenses in the capital. They say the cheapest hotel room costs $32 a night, leaving only $3 for meals.

In reality, legislators aren't quite that pinched. Most get a tax break. If they live more than 50 miles from the Capitol, they can deduct about $40 a day - the difference between the state expense rate and the federal rate. …