Lobbying proposals would provide more accountability

State Attorney General Bob Ferguson had the right reaction when his office was included in a New York Times investigation last fall of lobbyist pressure on state AGs.

Ferguson concluded that the article raised a “legitimate concern” about former state officials’ access to state government when they become lobbyists for private clients. In his case, former AG Rob McKenna lobbied Ferguson’s office on behalf of such clients as T-Mobile and Microsoft.

While Ferguson denies that his predecessor received any special treatment because of his ties to the office, he is proposing legislation that would address similar situations in the future.

If the legislation becomes law, a one-year “cooling off” period would go into effect barring all statewide elected officials, legislators, directors of cabinet-level agencies and many top staff members from lobbying state government. For directors and staff at smaller state agencies, the ban would only apply to lobbying their former agencies.

It’s a good idea — but hardly a new one. Similar lobbying restrictions are in place for members of Congress and their staff as well as legislators and other public employees in at least 32 other states. Washington is actually an outlier by not having a cooling-off period.

When exiting officials quickly turn around and start lobbying their former colleagues — often on behalf of clients they once regulated — it sends the wrong message to average citizens: The lobbyists’ clout is greater because of their ties to state government. Pausing the revolving door used by so many former state government officials and workers makes sense.

It’s also gratifying to see progress made in reining in legislators’ meals bought by lobbyists. While some lawmakers eschew such freebies because they might create the wrong impression with constituents, others have shown a cheerful willingness to stretch the interpretation of “infrequent,” which is how current law defines how many freebies they are allowed.

Now the Legislative Ethics Board has set a limit of 12 free meals in a given year. It’s up to legislators, however, to pass a law requiring that free meals under $50 be reported. Otherwise the public would just have to count on legislators volunteering to comply.

But some lawmakers complain that the reporting would be burdensome, so a better option would be state Rep. Chris Hurst’s proposal. The Enumclaw Democrat would ban free meals altogether. Presto! No reporting required. And his proposal would extend to all state employees.

If the $120 daily allowance legislators receive during session isn’t enough to feed them, perhaps it should be changed, especially for those who travel to Olympia from far-off districts. At the very least, the cost of lobbyist-provided meals should be deducted from lawmakers’ per diem.

Several states — including Florida, Wisconsin and Colorado — don’t allow any freebies for legislators, not even a cup of coffee. Washington should join their ranks.