Ethics board looks at lawmakers’ free food

Proposals would require House and Senate members to report or pay for fancy meals bought by lobbyists

bshannon@theolympian.comJune 9, 2014 

Washington state lawmakers would have to publicly report when lobbyists treat them to meals or beverages worth as little as $5 under proposals going to the Legislative Ethics Board this month.

One plan also would deduct the value of any meals from lawmakers’ per diem, or expense allotments. House and Senate members now receive $120 per day for expenses — everything from temporary lodging to meals — when they are in session or working outside their districts on official business.

“I think basically if you have to foot the bill yourself, the number of meals would go down dramatically,’’ said Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen of Seattle, who serves on the ethics board along with citizen members. He drew up one of the four proposals under consideration.

Pedersen’s proposal allows the most meals in a year — 52, or one per week — but his is the only one that suggests taking a bite out of lawmakers’ expense allowances.

The crackdown on gifts to lawmakers comes after the board found last year that a state law limiting gifts but allowing “infrequent” meals wasn’t clear about what infrequent meant.

A half-dozen lawmakers had taken more than 40 free meals worth at least $1,000 per lawmaker over just a few months’ time. One, Sen. Doug Ericksen, was a guest at meals valued in total at more than $2,000, many of them provided by the oil industry whose interests the Ferndale Republican oversees as chairman of an energy committee.

Reporters for The Associated Press and Northwest Public Radio spent three weeks compiling data from lobbyists’ spending reports.

But the vagueness of the law made it hard for the board to take action on an ethics complaint that named Ericksen and several others who also received dozens of free meals. When the Legislature chose not to define what “infrequent” meant during the legislative session that ended in March, the nine-member ethics board in April started drawing up a list of options.

All four proposals require that lawmakers report free meals that meet certain dollar thresholds, and the strictest of the proposals limits the free meals to three or five in a full year.

Board chairwoman Kristine Hoover has indicated she wants to take comments in June and August — and possibly October if the board hasn’t already adopted a new rule that clamps down on the freebies. Pedersen said he hopes lawmakers and lobbyists show up to comment on how the rule could affect them.

Two concerned citizens testifying to the board earlier in the spring — including former Olympia mayor Bob Jacobs — suggested an outright ban on free meals, a step that would require legislation.

Nine other states have such a ban, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures in Denver.

Brad Shannon: 360-753-1688 bshannon@theolympian.com @bradshannon2

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