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December 15, 2014 at 12:01 PM

Are Washington state lawmakers riding the free-meal gravy train?

On Monday, The Seattle Times weighed in on a new policy limiting state legislators to 12 meals per year paid for by lobbyists. Is that too many or too few? There’s really no need to get hung up on the number. What really matters is transparency.

Lobbyists currently lack an easy way to report whom they have met with and how much they have spent. The Public Disclosure Commission needs new software to make that information simple to record and accessible to citizens. (Surely a programming genius out there could create an app for this?)

None of this would even matter if lawmakers were banned from receiving free meals and entertainment. Alas, politics is all about relationships. No rules would ever stop lobbyists and lawmakers from chatting — whether it’s in a hallway, over a sandwich, coffee shop or steak dinner.

Lawmakers each earn $42,106 annually, in addition to a $120 daily stipend while they are in session. From the outside, that would seem like plenty of money for a part-time politician to pay his or her own way. But after speaking with several legislators, I’m not so sure about that. (Scroll down to vote in our poll asking whether legislators should be paid more or receive free meals.)

Washington’s citizen Legislature model means both chambers are filled by people from all parts of the socioeconomic spectrum, from middle-class teachers and farmers to attorneys, small-business owners, wealthy retirees and former tech executives. Some take a leave of absence from their full-time jobs during the session; others don’t or can’t. Some still get paid by their regular employers; some don’t.

State Rep. Eric Pettigrew, D-Seattle, says he makes ends meet by working full-time for Regence BlueShield in addition to his duties as a lawmaker representing South Seattle. Legislators meet in Olympia for a few months each year, but they must respond to constituents’ concerns and attend meetings year-round. The truth is being a lawmaker is a privilege, but it’s also a 24/7 job. Pettigrew says he is offended by the caricature of the politician as a free-loader who can be won over by a free shrimp plate.

“Influence happens in a whole bunch of different ways. I’ve never had a meal with you, but you could still have an impact on thoughts I have,” he says, adding the current salary and benefits offered to lawmakers restricts who can run for office.

“It’s expensive. The only way you can afford it is you have to live off of that [$42,106] salary, which is hard for anybody that has a family. Or you are wealthy enough where it doesn’t impact your bottom line. Or you’re in a place like me, where I work. I have a full-time job and I’m a legislator.”

State Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, is a political science professor at Central Washington University. He uses his $120 daily stipend to pay for child care, while his legislator salary helps to pay for monthly expenses, including travel, food, a rental in Olympia and his house payment back home. There is not much left over. He says he understood what he was getting into when he ran for office, but he is concerned that placing limits on the number of meals that can be picked up by lobbyists might lead to unintended consequences.

“I’ll get to 12 meals and I’ll just pass on dinner invitations, because I can’t afford to eat out at Mercato [in Olympia] three days a week,” Manweller said. “At the end of the day, rich lobbyists will sit down with rich legislators to make decisions for the rest of us. The lower middle class and the middle-class legislators simply won’t be at the table where these important decisions are made.”

Keep in mind legislators are often invited to several receptions and meals each day (under PDC rules, general receptions open to all legislators won’t count toward the Legislative Ethics Board’s 12-meal limit).

“We’re not trying to get a free meal,” Manweller says. “Trust me, we want to be home with our families, but a lunch or dinner is the only time you can get 8 or 9 legislators and lobbyists in the same place. There are different perspectives. They’re all being challenged.”

What do you think? Vote in our poll.




Comments | Topics: legislature, lobbyists, meals


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