Lobbyist expense reports must be more transparent

September 25, 2013 

The website of the state Public Disclosure Commission.

HTTP://WWW.PDC.WA.GOV/

When Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission meets this week, it should adopt staff recommendations to inject more transparency into how lobbyists report meals purchased for state lawmakers.

Then it should go further, urging the Legislature to fund the creation of a searchable electronic database of all lobbyist expense reports.

The PDC staff recommendation is a response to a news story last spring that lobbyists had paid for more than $65,000 worth of meals, drinks and golf enjoyed by state lawmakers during the first four months of the 2013 session. One lawmaker alone accepted 62 free meals.

Lobbyists don’t bother to report individual amounts spent on each lawmaker to the PDC, or they just estimate them. If adopted, the new rules would require lobbyists to use a form that separates the per-person expense.

It’s a small step toward transparency, but an important one.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, is promoting a complementary idea to make these reports more readily available to the public. He wants lobbyists to pay a fee that would finance the creation of an electronic database of the freebies handed out by lobbyists.

For some reason, his House bill keeps failing.

To gather data for its news story on lobbyist’s largesse, reporters for the Association Press and the Northwest News Network had to sort through piles of paper or non-searchable scans of sometimes incomplete documents uploaded to the PDC website. That’s a significant impediment to government transparency. Lawmakers should find it objectionable.

The larger question is whether a free meal, a drink or a round of golf can persuade a lawmaker to vote a certain way? And how often should lawmakers accept these freebies?

The state Legislative Ethics Board was scheduled to consider these questions at its meeting in September in response to a formal complaint made by a Seattle businessman. He asked whether lawmakers were violating the state ethics rule that says they can only accept free meals on “infrequent occasions,” a stipulation that isn’t clearly defined.

Some states don’t allow lawmakers to accept anything free from lobbyists. That’s not unreasonable, at least during legislative sessions when lawmakers can also draw a $90 per diem for meals and similar expenses.

We don’t expect the ethics board to impose that extreme, but it must provide more clarity. How many times can a lawmaker accept free meals during a specified period of time? Does coffee count? Should alcohol be allowed? Should any freebies be deducted from the legislator’s per diem claims?

Lawmakers are quick to say that free meals don’t buy their votes. Maybe so. Legislators can prove it by supporting clearer rules, stricter reporting guidelines and easier access to public records.

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