Politics & Government

Legislative Ethics Board weighs limit on free meals from lobbyists

A legislative board took halting steps Tuesday toward adopting a limit on how many free meals a legislator can accept from lobbyists. Current law bars most gifts with specific exceptions for meals and beverages during the course of work on an “infrequent” basis, but Legislative Ethics Board members were only able to agree that limit is somewhere between three meals and 52 meals per year.

The nine-member board, chaired by Gonzaga University professor Kristine Hoover, is in the middle of a months-long process that may not lead to a specific rule until August or October. So far, it has considered four specific proposals from its own members, but it also is taking comment from the public, lobbyists and lawmakers before settling on a limit.

Hoover said after the discussion she is committed to having an open public discussion but does not know if the board can reach agreement on a limit.

Democratic Sen. Jamie Pedersen of Seattle proposed a rule that lawmakers must report gifts of food and drink each month to Senate and House administrators so that the cost of lobbyist-provided food could be deducted from the expense money lawmakers get while in session.

But Rep. Matthew Manweller, R-Ellensburg, showed up to testify and said a limit would penalize those like himself who, as a college professor earning just over $40,000 a year for legislative duties, cooks hot dogs in the microwave while in Olympia during session. Manweller said he sometimes gets four invitations in a night and suggested a limit of 10 free meals a week, saying that his concern is not that he’ll be influenced - “it’s that I’ll get fat.”

Manweller said argued that a low limit would turn the Legislature into a place where only wealthy lawmakers can afford to pay for their own meals when invited out to discuss legislative business. “We’re going to create a system where rich people get to sit down with other rich people to make the rules ...” Manweller told the board, suggesting real decisions are made after hours.

Several members of the board - including Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside; former senator Stephen Johnson; and Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida - balked at requiring lawmakers to report meals. And administrators in the House and Senate said it would be a burden to keep track of meal reports and time deductions with the regular payment of $120 per day expense allotments to lawmakers during sessions.

Vick was among those who noted that lobbyists already must report meal and entertainment expenditures of more than $25 per occasion to the Public Disclosure Commission. Lawmakers also must report entertainment gifts larger than $50 value to the PDC.

But Sarajane Siegfriedt, a former lobbyist who said her clients were unable to afford gifts of meals for lawmakers, said she witnessed a culture of have and have nots at the Capitol. The result, she said, is public cynicism about what comes out of the legislative process.

Siegfriedt and Richard Hodgin, a retiree from Seattle who brought the issue to the board by filing an ethics complaint last year, both pushed for limits. Hodgin, an advocate for better funding for the food programs for the poor, was prompted to file his ethics complaint by news reports showing many lawmakers received in excess of 40 meals during the first months of the 2013 session.

Hodgin thinks lawmakers should pay for their own meals and said he wants to see a way for “the average citizen to go online and see who their lawmakers are sitting down and talking with.’’

On the other side was lobbyist Steve Gano, who told the board that he and his wife, also a lobbyist, find it important to have time to explain issues to a lawmaker. Sometimes they do the cooking themselves to keep down costs and provide that time to talk with lawmakers, Gano said.

Kenny Pittman, a citizen board member from Lacey, has proposed a limit of 16 meals a year or four every three months. And he is holding out for having lawmakers report what they do.

“My concern is, without reporting requirements, what do we have?” he said.

With little resolved, the board is scheduled to resume its discussion at its Aug. 19 meeting in Olympia, and more public comment will be accepted.