Enjoy being wined and dined? You could do worse than being a member of the state Legislature.
In addition to their $42,106 annual salaries and mileage reimbursement, legislators can receive $90 per diem while in session — a daily allowance that’s supposed to pay for such expenses as meals.
But apparently that’s not enough for those lawmakers who also accept free dinners from lobbyists. An investigation by The Associated Press and a consortium of public radio stations found that in just the first four months of the year, the state’s 50 most active lobbyists spent $65,000 feeding and watering legislators.
Several lawmakers accepted more than $1,000 in free meals between January and April, with one accepting $2,029 for 62 meals.
State ethics law only allows legislators to accept free meals on “infrequent occasions” — but fails to define what that means. Twice in a month? Five times in a session? That needs to be better defined – but certainly 62 times seems excessive.
Ideally, legislators wouldn’t accept any freebies from lobbyists, especially during session. At the very least, they should deduct the value of those meals from their per diem. Several states — including Wisconsin, Colorado and Florida — don’t allow any free meals, not even a cup of coffee.
Lawmakers argue that they’re hardly swayed by lobbyists’ meals to vote a certain way. That may well be true, but in Olympia — as in other spheres — business is conducted based on relationships; it’s about who you know. It stands to reason that a legislator who has spent a few hours being plied with wine and a great meal will have a closer relationship with the person picking up the tab than with a stray citizen who visits his or her office advocating for or against a particular bill.
Just having that much one-on-one face time with a legislator is valuable — and likely to pay off in some way, even if it’s only to ensure that the lobbyist’s message is heard. Would a constituent who isn’t paying for a pricey meal get that kind of personal attention? Doubtful.
The way lobbyists and legislators disclose these meals needs updating for the computer age. It took the journalists three weeks to sort the data as it’s compiled now. It should be readily accessible electronically the way campaign donations already are. But for some reason, legislation to accomplish that keeps dying.
That’s shameful. The public deserves to know who’s spending how much to feed legislators more than just a few pricey steak dinners.