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June 16, 2014 at 6:09 AM

Influencing lawmakers with free food and booze

Hey taxpayers, are you aware that Washington state lawmakers can each claim a daily allowance of up to $120 when they are in a legislative session? That allotment is supposed to cover three meals, lodging and transportation costs. Chances are pretty slim anyone is getting filthy rich off the practice, and The Associated Press reports it’s still below the $155 per diem allowed for state employees traveling to Thurston County.

The problem is lawmakers don’t have to disclose when they are treated to free meals by outside groups. They get their daily allowance regardless and are permitted to enjoy as much fine dining from lobbyists as they please, so long as those occasions are “infrequent.” Only gifts that exceed $50 are supposed to be reported.

A citizen complaint last summer led the Legislative Ethics Board to take a closer look at the legislative branch’s policies on complimentary food. (Read The Seattle Times’ July 29, 2013 editorial.) The panel advised lawmakers to clarify their own rules. That nudge didn’t lead to action, so the board is taking matters into its own hands.

On Tuesday, June 17, the board will meet in Olympia to consider more defined parameters and seek public comments. Board Counsel Mike O’Connell emailed a PDF file listing the four options under consideration. See the spreadsheet below:

Source: Legislative Ethics Board

Source: Legislative Ethics Board

To avoid the appearance of being influenced by lobbyists with deep pockets and fine dining tastes, lawmakers absolutely should track and reveal when they accept free meals, and lobbyists should do the same. Those records should be accessible to the public, too. I’m talking about an easily searchable database via the Public Disclosure Commission; something better than the handwritten, scanned PDF files that are currently filed by special interest groups on the PDC’s website.

In previous editorials and Opinion Northwest blog posts dating back to December 2012, The Seattle Times editorial board and I have called for the development of a more robust electronic filing process and public disclosure system paid for with lobbyist fees. At least two previous efforts to do so have been stalled in the Legislature.

Lawmakers should finally pass something in 2015.

 

 

 

Comments | Topics: disclosure, legislature, lobbying

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