An ethics board is seeking to clarify how frequently legislators are allowed to accept free meals and drinks, following news reports that some lawmakers have accepted dozens of free meals from lobbyists.
State legislators are allowed to accept meals or drinks on “infrequent” occasions. The Legislative Ethics Board held a meeting Tuesday to start the process of adopting a new rule for gifts for legislators, which could include setting a formal definition of “infrequent.”
The discussion stems from news reports published by the Associated Press and Northwest Public Radio that showed that lobbyists picked up the tab for hundreds of meals for lawmakers worth about $65,000 during the first four months of the 2013 legislative session. One Republican senator accepted about $2,000 worth of freebies on 62 occasions over four months.
Robert Cavanaugh testified at Tuesday’s public hearing, describing himself as a citizen activist who has worked on legislative issues since the 1970s. He says corporate lobbyists get unfair access to legislators, leaving people like him at a disadvantage.
“We cannot compete with the Boeings and the Microsofts,” he said. “When I try to get access to a legislator and get on an agenda, I see high-paid lobbyists coming and going into those offices. And I sit outside in the hallway with an appointment that is never honored.”
Cavanaugh told the board he believes that legislators should not be allowed to accept any free meals or lodging.
“I resent the favoritism that goes on and I think you have an opportunity to change it and I hope you do,” he said.
Former Olympia mayor and city councilman Bob Jacobs also testified at the hearing. He recommended the board adopt a complete prohibition against accepting gifts, which he says would take the pressure off of lawmakers.
“You can say, ‘It’s illegal, I can’t do that, that’s off the table.’ It’s clean and everybody understands it,” Jacobs said.
An outright ban may be outside of the board’s scope, said member Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.
“I don’t think we have the authority to do that, given that the Legislature has authorized gifts on an infrequent basis — which in my view doesn’t mean 62 times in four months — but also doesn’t mean never ever,” Pedersen said.
Pedersen also suggested that lawmakers should file a statement each month listing what they’ve received, rather than leave that paperwork up to lobbyists.
The board agreed to come up with draft proposals for a new rule before the group meets again on June 17. Those proposals will be refined by the board’s August meeting and formally adopted by October, board members agreed.
TVW video of Tuesday’s meeting is available at this link.