Politics Blog

Bill would make it easier to track lobbyist giving

It's easy to imagine the state Legislature not getting a lot of momentous bills passed in the 2014 session. More than one of our local six-member delegation have said one of their priorities in the session, which starts on Monday, Jan. 13, is to finish within the allotted 60 days.

Yet this report from Brad Shannon at The Olympian (a sister paper) suggests there is some momentum to clarify the rules regarding free meals given by lobbyists to lawmakers.

A media report that came out in May listed the top recipients of such free meals. The report created enough of a stir that it prompted a complaint to a legislative ethics panel.

The panel dropped the appeal last month, saying the law was too vague to enforce. The rules said something about legislators being allowed to take free meals only on "infrequent occasions." While the panel believed the meals reported to the Public Disclosure Commission by lobbyists were too many, they still weren't comfortable defining "infrequent" on the spot.

Shannon's story, dated today (Monday, Jan. 6), says if the Legislature doesn't act to tighten up the law this session, the panel will make its own decisions about how to specifically interpret the law. 

One way to tackle the problem is to bring the lobbyists' gifts more into the light.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, introduced last session House Bill 1005, which would make it as easy to track lobbyists' gifts and who received them on the PDC website as it is to track campaign donors and their candidates.

The report that led to the complaint of excessive free meals for legislators took the Associated Press and Northwest Public Radio three weeks to put together. A similar outlay of a political candidate's donations can be accessed with a few clicks of the mouse (or touch-screen touches, to be more current) on the PDC website.

One of our local state senators, Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, has the ignominious distinction of being at the top of the free-meal list. He claimed in a May 30 email to people who asked him about the report that he did not eat at every function he attended, but he was marked down by the lobbyists as having had a meal. Sometimes, Ericksen said, he would hopscotch (my word, not his) from one event to the next in the same evening, to make sure he met with as many constituents as he could. He said he does not take meals every time he stops by.

Ericksen's email came to The Bellingham Herald via a Blaine resident asking us to tell the Republican senator's side of the story at a time when publicity on the free meals was running high -- and negatively for Ericksen. The subject line in the email was "Sen. Ericksen responds to AP hack job," as I noted in my post from Dec. 27 about the ethics committee dropping the complaint. Upon further review, it appears the source of the email wasn't Ericksen's office directly but the Whatcom Republicans. It's possible this group and not Ericksen's office was responsible for the "AP hack job" word choice. Just wanted to clear that up.

Shannon's report in the TNT has more quotes supporting Ericksen's contention, including from a Democrat. Excerpted from his article:

House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan, D-Covington, has complained that lobbyists often report spending for meals for lawmakers at levels much higher than the actual value.

Sullivan said in an interview last August that he’s been to receptions where he might not have eaten anything. But lobbyists sponsoring the events tallied the total event cost, divided by the number of lawmakers attending, then reported to the PDC that they spent that amount for each lawmaker, whose name was then listed in the report.

(Mark) Schoesler (R-Ritzville) has the same beef, wanting accuracy in reports. He and Sullivan are far from alone.

“If there is disclosure, it should be accurate disclosure. Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see there are legislators who were influenced because they went to dinner with a client,’’ Sullivan said.

In her six-page dismissal opinion, ethics board chairwoman Kristine Hoover agreed that lobbyists’ reports on meals are inconsistent.