Politics & Government

Check, please: Lawmaker would ban free meals for state officials

New limits for being wined and dined awaited state lawmakers when they returned to Olympia this week, and a stingier proposal is on their menu.

An ethics board decided lawmakers starting this month are allowed no more than 12 free meals from lobbyists each year. Rep. Chris Hurst wants to ban the practice altogether.

The Enumclaw Democrat’s proposal would also extend beyond the legislator-lobbyist relationship to ban complimentary meals from nearly anybody to all state employees, although he said it’s targeted at state elected officials. Hurst’s bill is aimed at repairing trust in government.

“This is something we should have done a long time ago. It’s embarrassing that we haven’t,” Hurst said.

A stricter ban may wait a while longer, though. It faces a chilly reception in the State Government Committee chaired by Rep. Sam Hunt.

“I think we’ll just let this sit for a while, see what happens with the 12 meals” limit, said Hunt. “We’ve got enough people upset everywhere trying to figure out what this means.”

Hunt, a Democrat, said he doesn’t get many free meals because he goes to his home in Olympia most nights.

Others partake often. Fifty lobbyists reported spending $65,000 on meals for lawmakers in the first four months of 2013, according to a report by The Associated Press and public radio.

That helped push the Legislative Ethics Board to define an exemption in state gift limits. The law allows for free meals on “infrequent occasions,” and the board decided that means lawmakers can take up to 12 a year from lobbyists.

The board also asked the Legislature to require more reporting. Today, only meals that cost more than $50 must be reported.

Hurst’s proposal would delete the exemption for meals on infrequent occasions, and several others allowing meals and other gifts. But it would keep an allowance for events connected to charities, governments, and civic and community groups, as long as the events are not intended “to influence state officers or employees.”

Hurst put forward a similar proposal nearly a decade ago and says he got plenty of grief from lobbyists and legislators. But since then, he said, more lawmakers have joined him in refusing to take gifts from lobbyists — even a cup of coffee.

Skepticism still remains, though, and it’s bipartisan. Wenatchee Republican Sen. Linda Evans Parlette said it’s fine to have to keep track of meals, but an outright ban seems excessive. Working dinners are useful, she said.

“Let’s face it. Our salaries have been frozen since 2008 at $42,000 a year,” said Parlette, who said public service keeps her away from her career as a pharmacist. “I’m losing money doing this job.”

Most legislators are paid $42,106, plus a $120 daily expense allowance while in session, an amount recently increased over objections by Parlette and some others.

That sets them apart from state employees, who can be reimbursed for expenses on travel but only for meals they can show they’ve paid for. Lawmakers get the stipend for a day even if someone paid for their meals that day.

A lobbyist for businesses and school districts, Charles Brown, said long conversations over a meal build relationships. It doesn’t much matter who pays for them, he said.

“Legislators are not swayed by someone offering to buy them a meal,” Brown said.

“I’m not saying lobbyists are buying influence,” Hurst said, “but they’re not doing it for no reason.”