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Panel Curbs Number of Lobbyist-Paid Meals for Washington Lawmakers

The Washington state Legislative Ethics Board made it official Tuesday – no more than 12 free meals each year for legislators on a lobbyist’s dime.

The board voted 9-0 to impose that rule starting January 1, following earlier meetings where they expressed that same preference. The issue came to light after Associated Press and public radio reports last year detailed the extent to which lobbyists were picking up the checks for lawmakers’ meals – $65,000 worth in the first four months of 2013 alone, per the reports.

That perk came on top of a $120-a-day, taxpayer-funded per diem for lawmakers that cover expenses related to their official duties.

The rule defines a meal as both food and drink, and the lobbyist and lawmaker would sit down to discuss legislative business.

Meals over $50 in value have to be reported, but until the vote Tuesday there hadn’t been much clarity in the definition of what “infrequent occasion” meant in the state’s ethics rules.

The board left some exemptions available to lobbyists, such as receptions they host that feature numerous people, buffet-style dining, but no expectation of sitting down and dining. Nor would a meal paid for by a state or federal agency during tours, or a cup of coffee with no accompanying food item, count toward the cap.

But, a meal at a private home of a lobbyist where a lawmaker and a guest attend and there’s an expectation of sitting down and dining would count toward one of the 12 meals.

The state Public Disclosure Commission files the reports, but several citizens who attended the hearing expressed interest in being able to look up the filings online in a searchable database, similar to other lobbying reports on the PDC’s website. They’re available in paper form now.

The panel didn’t address the reporting requirements, but expressed concern about how the public could access the documents.

PDC Executive Director Andrea McNamara-Doyle said the commission’s reporting requirements and the database were badly in need of a overhaul, comparing their current status to being VHS technology in a Blu-Ray world. She also noted that this would need additional funding from the Legislature.

“The commission is doing what it can,” McNamara-Doyle said.

Seattle resident Jay Heyman spoke during the public comment period, and said the cap on meals was a good first step but more reforms were necessary.

“Talk is cheap,” Heyman said. “Ethical standards must inform the daily life of our institutions. Public skepticism about our political institutions is so widespread. The very rules of the game are unfair.”


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