Politics blog

Ethics board hears call to end free meals for lawmakers

OlympianApril 15, 2014 

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen said Tuesday he thinks Washington lawmakers should have to file a monthly statement listing any free meals and drink they have accepted from lobbyists and interest groups. The filing would be done as part of legislators’ monthly expense reimbursement claims that entitle them up to $120 a day for food and lodging while in session. 

Pedersen offered his idea during a Legislative Ethics Board hearing on a proposal to limit the amount of free food and drink lawmakers can accept. Three people had showed up to testify in favor of tighter rules in light of news reports that some lawmakers last year accepted more than 40 meals in just a few months. 

Two speakers  – including former Olympia mayor Bob Jacobs – asked for an outright ban on such freebies. Nine states already do that but practices vary widely across the states

“I think, No. 1, legislators would be more diligent than lobbyists,” Pedersen, a board member, said in an interview later. “I suspect the number of gifted meals would drop precipitously.’’

Our Sunday report on the freebies issue is here

Washington state ethics law allows lawmakers to accept free food and drink while in the course of doing legislative business but only on an infrequent basis – a term that has never been defined.

The ethics board is looking at the issue because a news project by reporters at The Associated Press and Northwest Public Radio last year found some legislators received dozens of free meals over the course of several months, and one received in excess of $2,000 of free meals spread over 62 or more occasions in which at least $25 was spent by the interest group.

Those news reports then generated an ethics complaint from Seattle resident Richard Hodgin, but the board declined to act on grounds the term “infrequent” was too vague.

Hodgin told the board he went to Thesaurus.com and looked for synonyms for the word infrequent, and he found these: “occasional, rare, sparse, sporadic, uncommon, exceptional, few, few and far behind, limited, isolated, scant, scarce, seldom, unusual.”

“I don’t think this fits what is happening down here at the Capitol at all,’’ he said.

Pedersen’s suggestion is one of perhaps many that will be formally prepared for public review and comment on June 17. That is the date of the next ethics board meeting in Olympia.

Board chairwoman Kristine Hoover said her hope is to take public comment at the June meeting and again in August – and possibly in October, if the board hasn’t acted by then on a new rule.

The state Public Disclosure Commission also is looking at its own reporting requirements on gifts. A staff proposal going to the PDC next week would raise the threshold for itemizing spending per lawmakers from $25 for an event to $50. 

Jacobs, the former mayor, said he thinks a no-gifts rule makes sense. He said he studied the issue in the 1970s as a policy staffer in the Office of Financial Management and also found from experience as a mayor that "it was better to accept nothing ... to keep it clean."

"My suggestion to you is simply say no free meals, no free lodging. None of that is acceptable," said citizen activist Rob Kavanaugh, who contrasted the lack of access to lawmakers that someone like himself gets compared to well-heeled interest groups. "We cannot compete with the Boeings and the Microsofts ..."

Hodgin, a Seattle resident, also urged tighter restrictions. In prepared comments that were read to the board by a friend, Hodgin said "government must be able to account for dollars spent by lobbyists on our legislators." He noted that at the same time lawmakers are getting food subsidies they have failed to adequately provide for many in society who go hungry.

What the board does ultimately is unclear, but Hoover said the board cannot act on its own to enact a ban. Hoover does expect the board to tighten the rules  a position shared by Pedersen and board member Stephen Johnson, himself a former senator.

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