State Rep. Sam Hunt joked last week that Washington lawmakers might need a punch card to keep track of any lobbyist-paid meals they accept next year.
That’s because the Legislature’s ethics board recently set a new limit of 12 free meals that a legislator can accept from lobbyists in any given year, starting Jan. 1. The new ceiling could vex some legislators who have interpreted the law’s allowance for “infrequent” meals to eating on lobbyists’ dimes as often as every other day while in session.
But even as the Legislative Ethics Board has acted to rein in lobbyist-paid fare, the uncertain fate of follow-up legislation and recent changes by the Public Disclosure Commission mean the public still might have a hazier view of the wining and dining of lawmakers.
The PDC acted last week to create new exemptions for groups holding receptions to which all lawmakers are invited — in effect saying that hosts no longer must estimate the value of free food and drink provided to an individual at receptions, if no sit-down meal is offered and certain conditions are met.
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The PDC also recently raised the threshold for reportable entertainment events to $50, up from the $25 level set back in 1978 — meaning even as lawmakers limit themselves to 12 meals a year, fewer of those get-togethers might be publicly reported.
The ethics board, which includes lawmakers and citizens, is urging the Legislature to require more transparency of itself. The board voted 5-2 last week to ask the House and Senate to pass a law requiring individual lawmakers to report whatever free meals they accept — listing the event and value of meal and drinks received, regardless of cost, over the course of a year. The data would go on the personal financial disclosure statements filed yearly.
It’s not clear yet whether lawmakers will agree. Without such new reporting by lawmakers, Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen of Seattle said the new 12-meal limit “will be entirely on the honor system.’’
“I do not know how this will be received. My anecdotal feedback from my colleagues about the 12-meal rule is mixed,” Pedersen said in an interview. “Most people I think are just fine with it. They appreciate having the clarity. They want to follow the rules.”
Sen. Joe Fain, who was listed among the most frequent guests of lobbyists in early 2013, says he quit accepting free fare and always pays his way at events where lobbyists offer to pick up the food tab.
Fain says he also wants better disclosure and is open to looking at the board’s proposal. Fain said he introduced a bill in 2014 that would have led to more disclosure and he still wants a better lobbyist reporting system at the PDC that allows the public to look up what is spent on a legislator.
Because lobbyist reports are based at times on estimates, Fain also wants a way for lawmakers to see what a lobbyist is claiming was the entertainment cost. “If we’re going to have a reporting require, and we should, we should make sure it has valid and accurate information,” Fain said.
But he cautioned, “If a $50 meal is going to buy a vote then people really need to replace (the) legislator.’’
Some lawmakers are skeptical. Sam Hunt chairs the House Government Operations and Elections Committee that has approved better disclosure rules for lobbyists in the past but he recoiled at the idea of turning lawmakers into bookkeepers.
“We have to look at it. My big concern is we don’t want something where we have to become accountants or store a bunch of paper,” Hunt said.
Longtime lobbyist Steve Gano said he can imagine calling to invite a lawmaker to a meal to talk about a policy issue and having to ask awkwardly: “Are you OK with us picking up the tab or is this one of the 12 you want to save for someone else?”
Other lawmakers dislike that a limit is coming and some chafe at the idea a meal can buy a vote.
Rep. Matthew Manweller, R-Ellensburg, said he’ll now have to ask his legislative aide to help keep track of what he eats and at whose table.
As a college professor who must take time off to serve as a lawmaker, Manweller said he thinks the new limit might work for those who are wealthy and can afford to pay their own way. But he said it will tend to exclude lawmakers of lesser means from some meetings where policy issues are discussed around a meal.
“I call it the 1 percent ethics law,” Manweller said, adding that the Legislature is supposed to reflect the broader citizenry. But because he won’t be able to pay his way, “I will not be there any more.”
Grant Degginger, chairman of the PDC, said the commission changed two of its rules in a bid to update the law and also make sure rules were clear and easier to follow. He said the public is more concerned about intimate meal settings where few lawmakers and lobbyists meet to discuss policy, and the new rules still ensure that those meals are reported by lobbyists when total outlays are above $50 for the event.
The $25 threshold for reporting had not been adjusted since it was set in 1978, and Degginger said that adjusting the figure for inflation would have raised it to $80 or higher, which he said even lobbyists thought was too high.