Support The Wire

Lawmakers Are Limited To 12 Free Meals A Year, But Is Another Step Needed?

Now that Washington state has limited the number of meals a legislator can have on a lobbyist’s dime to 12 in a calendar year, an ethics panel wants to take the issue a step further.

The state’s Legislative Ethics Board met Tuesday, and debated whether to expand a requirement that all meals paid for by lobbyists, regardless of costs, are publicly disclosed. The state’s current minimum requirement for disclosure is that the meal exceeds $50 in cost.

The panel voted to recommend such a change to the Legislature, which would require legislation in the upcoming session. Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said the stricter reporting requirements are needed to complement the earlier rule limiting the total number of free meals to 12. The limit on meals takes effect in January.

State Rep. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.

State Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.

The ethics panel could do that via rule making because it was defining what an “infrequent occasion” meant under existing state law, but the additional reporting requirements need legislation.

Without the tougher reporting requirements, Pedersen said it could encourage lobbyists to try and skirt the 12-meal limit by purchasing meals under $50, which therefore wouldn’t have to be reported.

“We will have set up a rule that is entirely on the honor system,” Pedersen said. “I think there is a need to restore confidence in legislators’ behavior.”

Not every panelist agreed with Pedersen, however, as Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, said he felt uncomfortable signing off on the concept without seeing the draft language of the potential legislation.

Panelist Kenny Pittman said he felt it went beyond the scope of what the ethics board’s original task, which was to define “infrequent occasions.”

“We were trying to get a consensus and we’ve done that,” Pittman said. “I’m happily content to just be setting that limit of meals.”

The issue of lobbyists paying for meals bubbled in the public consciousness last year, when the Associated Press and public radio reporters teamed up to investigate it. Their investigation found that lobbyists spent $65,000 on the free meals in the first several months of that year, according to their report.

Your support matters.

Public service journalism is important today as ever. If you get something from our coverage, please consider making a donation to support our work. Thanks for reading our stuff.