The special interest money handed out by lobbyists into the pockets of government officials in meals, trips and other gifts has become a major issue for Missouri.

It definitely will return for the upcoming legislative session in bills to ban lobbyist gifts.

But this fall while I was developing an online system for you to track special interest money in Missouri government, I found a different side to this story.

Before telling you about my discovery, I need to provide some background.

The amount of money lobbyists spent in Missouri for public officials exceeded $530,000 this year.

The benefits provided include drinks, meals, travel, sports tickets, theater tickets and gifts.

But in probing through the lobbyist reports, I discovered something else -- a kindness that struck me as the spirit of Christmas.

In the thousands of lobbyist expenditure reports this year, I found 366 times that lobbyists reported expenditures for a House “Doorman” or Senate “Doorkeeper.” There were even more in the prior year.

There were some big expenditures, but most were just few dollars for a snack.

The beneficiaries of these gifts were not high-powered operatives or powerful staffers. They simply are the staff who manage the doors of the Senate and House chambers.

They mostly are elderly, retired state employees working part time when the legislature is in session. It’s almost like a hobby for them.

One had been a long-time teacher and education official and another a top state budget expert.

When the Senate holds one of its sessions that runs past midnight, these elderly staffers have to stay well past their family dinner hours.

I’ve often been concerned about these staffers and wondered whether legislative leaders were fully aware of the burdens they impose by their late-night theatrics.

But I discovered there are some lobbyists who are aware and do care.

I’m not being naive.

I know most of the staffers named as recipients of these inexpensive meals.

They do not influence public policy nor play favorites in controlling access to legislators.

Whether the request to call a member off the floor comes from a lobbyist, a constituent or a reporter like me, these doorkeepers always treat all of us with the same professional respect.

So why spend the money on meals for these folks when there is little to gain?

When I looked at the names of the lobbyists making those expenditures, I began to understand.

Many have been in this building for decades. Some have been governmental officials themselves from whom I’ve heard a deep respect for this governmental system of ours.

They care, I think, about the staffers who make this system possible and understand the burdens of these absurdly late-night sessions.

During those long hours, I’ve seen bonds of friendship develop between lobbyists and these staffers that transcends the popular image of lobbyists as being just “wheelers and dealers.”

In reading this, you may remember the recent state auditor’s report criticizing a Senate “slush fund” financed by lobbyists to pay for staff meals.

That’s a component of the system legislators established by which lobbyists can give money to an entire legislative group, like a committee, so the individual legislators getting the benefits do not have to be named.

This year, for example, more than $48,000 was given to “Entire Missouri Senate” with no indication as to whom actually benefited.

Some of that money went to the Senate’s separate account to fund meals for staffers that was criticized by the auditor.

But what I uncovered was quite different.

What I found were a large number of small expenditures for snacks for identified staffers who were in no position to benefit the lobbyist donors.

These were gifts with no expectation of return.

That’s what I mean about the spirit of Christmas.

If you’d like to explore this lobbyist-spending database, it’s all at http://mdn.org/forms/lobmoney.htm. Or to track the complete record of your legislator, check out http://mdn.org/forms/fullxgr.htmw

Editor’s note: Phill Brooks has been a Missouri statehouse reporter since 1970, making him dean of the statehouse press corps. He is the statehouse correspondent for KMOX Radio, director of MDN and a faculty member of the Missouri School of Journalism. He has covered every governor since the late Warren Hearnes.