After the legislative day ends at the Capitol, it’s common for lobbyists and lawmakers to meet for dinner at one of several — usually higher-end — Olympia restaurants. This is where, over a meal, perhaps a bottle of Washington wine, the work continues.
“(It’s) getting to know folks on a one-to-one basis,” explains Steve Gano, a veteran business lobbyist with clients like Walmart, MillerCoors beers and AT&T.
From January through March of this year Gano spent $6,466 on entertainment, according to reports he filed with the Public Disclosure Commission.
That puts Gano in the top 10 of lobbyist entertainers so far this year. In the first three months of 2013, lobbyists in the state spent more than $200,000 on entertainment, according to the PDC. Much of that money was spent to wine and dine state lawmakers during the just-concluded 105-day session.
Gano compares going to dinner with a lawmaker to going on a date. “What was the first event you took your wife on,” Gano asked rhetorically. “You went on a dinner date. And you did that because you wanted to get together to know each other.”
Gano says a meal together is a way for lobbyist and lawmaker to learn each other’s backgrounds. Ultimately that helps in what he calls the “communications process.”
Gano works with his wife, Kathleen. Together they run Gano and Associates, a contract lobbying firm. They live in Lakewood but also own a house across the street from the Capitol Campus in Olympia. Instead of taking lawmakers out to dinner, Gano and his wife often host at their home.
On the evening of a recent legislative deadline, the Ganos held an open house. Among those who dropped by was House Public Safety chairman Roger Goodman, D-Kirkland.
“It was a lovely spring late afternoon on the deck of the house of one of our more prominent lobbyists and they were serving a lot of (MillerCoors) products,” recalled Goodman. There also was a representative of the MillerCoors company in attendance as well as other members of the House Democratic caucus, according to Gano.
One of the big controversies in the Legislature this year was whether to lower but continue an expiring 50-cent-per-gallon beer tax from 2010, and expand it to include microbrewers. The beer industry fought the tax. Drunken driving was another big topic after two high profile fatal crashes in Seattle. Goodman had emerged as one of the leading advocates for the new DUI legislation. But Goodman said he doesn’t see a conflict with drinking a beer at the house of the beer lobbyist.
“Personally, I am not persuaded one way or the other by being wined and dined or given my favorite bottle of beer,” said Goodman in an interview in the House wings. “The way I operate is I look at each issue and each person one at a time independent from one another. So, I was perfectly willing to drink a Coors product and still favor increasing beer taxes.”
Goodman added that there are studies that have made a connection between higher beer taxes and fewer DUI fatalities. Nonetheless, one week after the Ganos’ open house, Washington House Democrats abandoned their proposal to extend and expand the beer tax. Gano said the timing is a coincidence. “If it was that simple to offer someone a beer to kill the beer tax, we would have done it a long time ago,” he joked.
In fact, Democrats faced a barrage of opposition not only from big beer makers, but also from local microbrewers and beer distributors. House Finance Chair Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, said House Democrats also had to weigh the prospect of the beer industry funding a tax repeal measure at the ballot.
When it comes to lobbyists entertaining lawmakers, most of the entertaining is done by a small fraction of the lobbyists. Of the more than 850 registered lobbyists, only 155 or 18 percent reported entertainment expenses from January through March — and 82 percent of the entertainment spending was done by just 50 lobbyists.
Both sides are adamant that there is no expectation that a dinner or beer will lead to a favorable vote.
“It’s no quid pro quo for a $140 dinner,” said Michael Temple, a longtime lobbyist for the Washington State Association For Justice, the state’s trial lawyers organization. “That’s just totally inappropriate.”
Temple said he schedules dinners because most lawmakers will only accommodate 15-minute meetings during the day. On complex issues, such as workers’ compensation, Temple said a two- or three-hour dinner gives him the time to have a detailed and nuanced conversation. Reports show Temple spent nearly $2,600 on entertainment in the first three months of this year. That included four dinners with freshman lawmaker Marcus Riccelli, D-Spokane.
“I’ve known (Riccelli) for a very long time,” explained Temple. “I knew him when he was a staff person in the Legislature … his father is also a member of our association and so he is a natural for us to talk to about any number of legal and civil justice issues.”
Riccelli said a dinner out after a day at the Legislature is an opportunity to wind down and have a discussion.
“Definitely when somebody’s talking about going out to dinner, I never think anything else,” said Riccelli when asked about the meals with Temple. I’m like, ‘Well, I’m hungry, I can always eat.’”
Riccelli added that, “We’re here to represent our constituents and represent the state the best as we can and none of that has any impact on any of the decision making at all.”
Another name that shows up frequently in first quarter lobbyist reports this year is Senate floor leader Joe Fain, R-Auburn. Between January and the end of March, records show Fain ate out a dozen times with a contract lobbyist for, among other clients, Microsoft and Comcast. Fain declined an interview but through a staffer explained that some of those were group gatherings where he didn’t eat.
So how do meals out affect what happens at the statehouse? Temple offered this scenario. He takes a lawmaker or two to dinner. “Then, a week from now all of a sudden an amendment comes up in a committee and they’re walking into a committee hearing and you now only have three minutes to walk with them between one hearing room and the next … . It makes it much easier for them to understand that they can trust the information you’re providing them,” said Temple.
This troubles Mary Boyle with the watchdog group Common Cause in Washington, D.C.
“We would see it as kind of an unfair advantage that lobbyists have over, you know, ordinary members of the public,” Boyle said.
In an ideal world, Boyle says lawmakers would pay for their own dinners. Legislators are entitled to $90-per-day stipend when they’re in session and some do split the check. One of them is state Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle.
“I’m not going to sit here and say that no one’s ever bought me a coffee or a lunch or something, that’s happened occasionally,” he said. “But my general rule is I try to pick up my own tab.” Frockt explained it’s a personal thing for him – he doesn’t want anyone to question how he arrives at the positions he takes.
Based on a review of Public Disclosure Commission records, it’s not uncommon for Washington lobbyists to spend more than half-a-million dollars on entertainment in a year. That breaks down to an average of more than $3,400 per legislator.
While lobbyist entertainment is a big part of the influence game, veteran lobbyists Temple and Gano noted it’s not like the old days. Both remember when off-campus lunches were a regular feature of the legislative session.
“They’d sit in (the) bar in the Aladdin which (was) only two blocks from (the Capitol) and that bar would be full and there’d be several people having martinis at lunch,” recalled Temple who started working for the Legislature in 1979.
Today, Gano said, lawmakers are busier, there’s more public disclosure and, he believes, more “self-policing.”
“While there’s an expectation that you’re going to go out (and have a meal) and it has value. … I think people are trying to make sure that there’s not an appearance that it’s out of control.”
Austin Jenkins reports for the Northwest News Network, a collaboration of public radio stations in Washington, Oregon and Idaho. His stories can be heard locally on KUOW and KPLU. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.