Lobbyists spend nearly $1 million each year on gifts for Missouri lawmakers. The types of gifts vary greatly -- from expensive meals and drinks to tickets for sporting events to small things like stamps and books.
Each month, lobbyists have to disclose those gifts. And, in partnership with NPR, St. Louis Public Radio has a website (LobbyingMissouri.org) that keeps track of it all.
The reports we have go up through April of this year. That means that most, but not all, of the 2014 legislative session is included. Here are some things we noticed.
In the first four months of this year, lawmakers accepted $558,813.68 worth of gifts. That's about on par with past years. So 2014's lobbying isn't the most, but it's still in the upper quartile.
Prior years show that most gifts are given during the legislative session (January through May), and it means 2014 is on pace to approach the $1 million mark by the year's end.
Lawmakers have accepted 5,019 gifts this year. The average worth of each gift was $111.34.
Health-care lobbying is on the rise compared to recent years. In the first five months, lobbyists representing the health-care industry spent $93,021.11 on gifts for the legislature; 96 percent of those gifts were for meals.
This year's biggest spender? The Missouri Hospital Association, spending more than $31,000.
There's a pretty obvious explanation for the rise in health-care lobbying: Medicaid expansion. A coalition of Democrats (including the governor), business interests, a few Republicans, along with the health-care industry have all tried to convince the Republican-controlled legislature to expand Medicaid coverage, which would be paid for mostly with federal money.
In spite of the uptick in lobbying, legislators didn't pass Medicaid expansion.
As you can see, individual lawmakers are not identified as the recipients of most lobbyists' gifts. Instead, most of the spending goes to "groups." A group could be a legislative committee; it could be the entire House or the entire Senate. But when a gift goes to a group, lobbyists don't have to disclose the names of the actual recipients. It's a practice many have criticized when urging ethics reform.
And, taking a look at recent years, directing gifts to groups has been on the rise.
This year, nearly 80 percent of all the spending on gifts went toward groups. That means we don't really know who the real recipients were for $4 out of every $5 spent this year.
But it's not all bad news. When lobbyists disclose their spending, they have an opportunity to offer a description of what the gift was. Many do, some don't.
The data show that such disclosures are on an upward trend, with only 28 percent of gifts not including a description this year.
A Few Notable Gifts
- No reservations about accepting lobbyist gifts:
Let's be real here. Jefferson City isn't a huge place, and there aren't exactly a lot of restaurant options for politicians who want to be treated to a high-priced dinner. It's a tough world. As a result, a couple of spots keep showing up in the disclosures. Alexandro's is "a fine dining restaurant offering a wide variety of menu items," according to its website. Their highest priced item is a lobster, either fried or broiled, for $39.95.
Since 2007, politicians have received more than $34,000 in free food and drinks at Alexandro's. So far, this year, it's $7,949.63.
Another popular restaurant is the Jefferson City Country Club. Lobbyists have taken Missouri lawmakers out to nearly $12,000 worth of dinners this year alone.
- Topping it all off:
In case fine dining isn't your taste, and you're in the mood for some more down-to-earth dining experience paid for by lobbyists, you're in luck. In April, the Missouri County Collectors Association spent $3,600 on "Arris' Pizza buffet lunch coupons" that were delivered to every legislative office.
- No one wants a crabby lawmaker:
Apparently, the Missouri legislature has a fascination with crab. I don't know why and I don't know how it happened. But I do know that politicians have accepted more than $30,000 worth of crab over the past eight years. Seriously, if anyone can explain the crab fascination to me, tweet at me.
- Stamp of disapproval:
Lobbyists' gifts don't always have to be big and expensive. For example, the Missouri Pharmacy Association and the Ameristar Casino Hotel gave about $50 worth of stamps this year. It's hard to say who got those stamps, as it was disclosed to going to the "entire Missouri Senate." And the law firm Polsinelli paid for Sen. Brian Munzlinger's hunting license this year. It cost $36.
Note: you can see all the gifts each lawmaker has received by going to LobbyingMissouri.org. If a certain gift sticks out to you, tweet me.
Follow Chris McDaniel on Twitter: @csmcdaniel