A panel empowered to guide elected leaders along a righteous path is struggling to draw clear ethical boundaries for lawmakers when dining and drinking with lobbyists.
State lawmakers are allowed to “accept gifts in the form of free food and beverage on infrequent occasions” if it’s related to their official duties. But existing law doesn’t define “infrequent.”
Pressure to come up with a definition arose following revelations a handful of legislators regularly dined on lobbyists’ dime during the 2013 session. Several of them may have done so while collecting taxpayer-funded per diem payments, according to research compiled by reporters for a public radio station and Associated Press.
The Legislative Ethics Board, a panel of lawmakers and legal minds, is trying to provide clarity on the rules but members are thus far unable to agree on whether “infrequent” should be defined in terms of a specific number of meals.
Also, they are wrestling with what exactly constitutes a meal and at one point must lawmakers report them. Right now, legislators must report whenever they are treated to meal worth more than $50.
That brings us back to Tuesday’s meeting of the ethics board and a confession from Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, that a bag of Doritos can be a meal for him.
He wanted to know how many bags of Doritos a lawmaker can accept from a lobbyist before it becomes a meal that must be reported as a gift.
The answer he got from the board counsel was that it’s not crystal clear but if he gets $50 worth all at once it likely needs to be declared.
That didn’t sound like a problem to Hansen who endorsed limiting lawmakers to an average of one free meal per week and to report those exceeding $5 in value.
Such a course of action didn’t set well with other panel members who contended it restricted lawmakers’ ability to interact with lobbyists too much and created potentially burdensome reporting requirements.
During the public hearing portion of the meeting one lawmaker argued those kinds of changes would undermine the ability of citizen legislators to serve.
State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, told the panel that dining with a lobbyist may be the only time someone of his limited financial means can learn nuances of bills.
He said he was offended at the notion he could be “influenced by a $12 hamburger” and worried the ethics panel would “create a system where rich people sit down with other rich people” to dictate legislation.
A citizen Legislature means “even poor and middle class people get to sit down with lobbyists,” he said. “I sometimes get asked to go to four dinners a night. My big fear is not that I’m going to get influenced, it’s that I’m going to get fat.”
The Legislative Ethics Board will continue its discussions in August.
Jerry Cornfield is a political reporter who covers Olympia for The Daily Herald in Everett, which is among the Washington state newspapers in the Sound Publishing group. He can be contacted at email@example.com.