State lawmakers are venting their annoyance with a new limit of 12 free meals they are allowed to take from lobbyists.
“We don’t want to talk about it because we’re going to look bad if we do, but at some point we have to push back and say: We’re not corrupt. We’re not bought off,” said Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond.
Lawmakers complain the limit that took effect this month – based on a Legislative Ethics Board interpretation of law – doesn’t just impugn their integrity, it’s also plain confusing.
Does a brown-bag lunch from the community bankers’ lobby with no beverage count as a meal? (Yes, according to the board.)
An invitation for drinks and cigars at a lobbyist’s house near the Capitol, with no food? (No.)
An upcoming reception and dinner hosted by the farmers’ lobby? (The reception, no; the banquet that follows, yes.)
How about a recent lunch provided by the Pierce County health department during a briefing? (Yes, so the lunch went only to staff.)
“All of us have tried to navigate the maze of what is a meal,” Sen. Marko Liias, D-Mukilteo, said during hearings Thursday on the subject.
Liias said he has settled on simply refusing meals. Sen. Kirk Pearson, R-Monroe, said he doesn’t go to after-hours events anymore. Instead he goes to the gym.
But Hatfield said many lawmakers, especially leaders, have no choice but to spend their mealtimes in working lunches and dinners. And Sen. Pam Roach, R-Auburn, who led the committee discussion Thursday, said meeting with all who ask is part of lawmakers’ jobs. (Within reason: She wouldn’t go to lunch with a hypothetical “Kill All Gun Rights” group, she said).
Paying one’s own way through all those meetings is fine for wealthy lawmakers, Hatfield said, but not members of the “poor caucus,” like him.
Legislators have made $42,106 a year since 2008. They also get $120 a day for expenses while they are working, making them eligible to receive an extra $19,800 every two years not counting special sessions and extra meetings. Many take separate reimbursements for expenses such as mileage. Leaders receive extra stipends. A salary commission is considering raising lawmakers’ base pay by 11.2 percent over two years.
Amid the indignation, Sen. Jamie Pedersen has a different view.
Sure, anything new is bound to draw some misinformation and confusion, said Pedersen, D-Seattle and a member of the ethics board. But the limit is really not that complicated.
“If you go out to breakfast, lunch or dinner with a lobbyist and the lobbyist pays for your meal, that’s one of the reportable ones,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen has proposed requiring expanded disclosure of meals. It’s one of several bills on the subject.
Hatfield would go in the opposite direction. His bill would apply the 12-meal limit only to meals worth more than $50.
Many meals that are drawing questions would fall below that standard, which is already the threshold for what lawmakers are supposed to disclose on financial forms.
If a $50 threshold seems like an invitation to $49.99 meals, Hatfield and other lawmakers say in fact it’s the current limit that might inspire clever workarounds.
Some nefarious lobbyists might just pay with cash and avoid being seen, Sen. Brian Dansel, R-Republic, said. Or a lobbyist could spring for liquor knowing that a lawmaker is buying the food, suggested Sen. Cyrus Habib, D-Kirkland.
Or everyone could just stand up, since the limit applies to sit-down meals. But what is a lawmaker with a disability or a hip replacement to do, Roach asked: “And what about us senior citizens? Do I have to stand for everything?”
As some lawmakers noted, the inspiration for the limit was a few of their colleagues with big appetites for lobbyist-paid meals, as described in a report by The Associated Press and public radio.
“Because somebody may have really gone out a lot in a session, (then) the rest of us shouldn’t have to suffer this way over it,” Roach said. She joked that maybe “we should just give lashes to the ones who eat so much.”