OLYMPIA – A special panel made a great leap forward last week, coming to an agreement on defining one of the thorniest issues in legislative policy.
Not tax policy or basic education policy or health care policy. Meal policy.
As in how many meals can a lobbyist buy before a legislator runs afoul of the state law that requires him or her to accept only “infrequent” meals from a lobbyist? And just what, exactly, is a meal?
The Legislative Ethics Board settled on 12 meals a year as being infrequent, although a legislator could take them all in a 60-day legislative session, or presumably in a single week of a session, because there’s no rule limiting them to one per month. This was a compromise, seemingly worthy of Henry Clay, because some board members wanted to go as low as three and others were pushing for 24 or points north.
Those who were looking for a higher number had concerns such as whether it would count against the allotted dozen if friends who just happen to be lobbyists come to town and offer to buy you lunch (it would). Or whether it would count if said friend invites you to his backyard barbecue (it would). Or whether it would count if a lobbyist bought you a donut (it wouldn’t, unless the donut came with coffee and you sat down and had a chat about legislative business, in which case it might.)
There was some expected harrumphing from members of the board who argued they couldn’t be swayed by a beer and burrito, or presumably filet mignon and Chateauneuf-du-Pape. One member, Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge, thought 12 was too many because that broke down to one per month and, as he related in a moment of possibly unnecessary marital candor, “I don’t go out for dinner with my wife once a month.”
Hansen and others pushing a lower number had an easy work-around. Go to as many meals with lobbyists as you want, if they are your good buds and you enjoy their company. Just pay for your own meal. Legislators are getting their per diems bumped to $120 so “they can certainly pay for their own $7 burrito,” Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle said.
As for the definition of a meal, it comes down to any breakfast, lunch or dinner that a lobbyist or a lobbyist’s employer buys, it counts against your 12.
Perhaps we should consider ourselves lucky that legislators are not like hobbits, who had seven meals a day: Breakfast, second breakfast, elevenses, luncheon, afternoon tea, dinner and supper. The ethics board might never reach a compromise.