For lawmakers, there is such a thing as a free meal

The News Tribune The News TribuneApril 16, 2014 

State legislators have given themselves a nice 33 percent bump in their per diem – the daily stipend that’s supposed to compensate them for such expenses as meals and lodging during session. At $120 a day, those legislators who take per diem will make an extra $3,150 during the 105-day session in 2015.

Even so, they couldn’t be bothered to put any limits on the number of free meals they can accept from lobbyists. The House at least passed a measure that would have made it easier for the public to track which special interests are paying for which lawmakers’ meals, but the Senate quietly let the bill die.

Maybe it’s just a coincidence, but state senators top the list of the biggest feeders at the special interest trough. The top-five senators – and the amount lobbyists spent on their meals during the 2013 session – are: Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale ($2,029); Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island ($1,477); Joe Fain, R-Auburn ($1,428); Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla ($1,228); and Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville ($1,101).

The problem with state law on these freebies is that it’s too vague, allowing lawmakers to accept free meals on an “infrequent” basis. But nothing defines what “infrequent” means, leaving the language wide open to interpretation.

To Erickson – the top diner at lobbyist expense – that apparently allows more than 60 free meals over a six-month period.

The state Ethics Board can – and should – put an end to such nonsense. The board gave lawmakers the opportunity this past session to define what they can and cannot accept in the way of free meals, but they declined to do so. Now the ethics board should act and take into account the big per diem raise lawmakers gave themselves.

Several states – including Florida, Wisconsin and Colorado – have the so-called “cup of coffee” rule, which doesn’t allow lawmakers to accept even that freebie. There’s probably little danger of that happening here, but reasonable restrictions should apply.

While limits are important, disclosure is even more so. The legislation that died in the last session, House Bill 1005, would have gone a long way toward reining in the wining and dining. It would have enhanced transparency by requiring better reporting to the Public Disclosure Commission of lobbyists’ expenditures.

It took a team of Associated Press and National Public Radio reporters three weeks to figure out how much lawmakers had accepted in free meals by looking at data the way it’s compiled now. It would be nearly impossible for the average citizen to get that information.

But then, maybe that’s the point.

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