April 20, 2014 in Region

Spin Control: Legislative ethics panel weighing meaning of ‘infrequent’

By The Spokesman-Review
 

OLYMPIA – A special panel is struggling to tell legislators how often they can break bread – and drink various beverages – with lobbyists.

State law already carries the stricture that such activities should be “infrequent.” The task for the Legislative Ethics Board – a group of legislators and citizens who set rules for the conduct of senators and representatives – is deciding when one moves beyond infrequent to frequent.

Is it one dinner a month? Lunch every third Thursday? One dinner, one lunch and two coffee dates a week?

This argument may seem to fall somewhere between medieval scholars debating how many angels fit on the head of a pin and Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of pornography as “I know it when I see it.”

But it is a question made real by reporting last year by colleagues at the Associated Press and Northwest Public Radio. They waded through hundreds of pages of reports by lobbyists documenting whom they wined and dined during the first four months of the 2013 session. For some, infrequent was as frequent as $1,000 or more worth of free meals in that period. One senator had 62 instances of meals, drinks or golf games comped.

And this is in reports from lobbyists who actually submitted forms. Some didn’t or filled them out so badly it wasn’t easily discernible.

Legislators had the standard excuses that these events provide valuable time for constituents and other knowledgeable sources to present them with important information on pending legislation, and that they can’t be “bought” for an entrée, a glass of decent pinot noir or 18 holes at the golf course. And most of them can’t – although there is a question of whether some can be rented for a short time.

But there is the appearance of evil, and sometimes in the public mind that can be as bad as evil itself.

The best solution, several witnesses told the Legislative Ethics Board last week, was to flat-out ban all of these “gifts.” Let legislators go Dutch and pay their share of the check, if these meetings are so valuable.

“Accept nothing,” said Bob Jacobs, a former Olympia mayor. “Just keep it clean. … Say it’s illegal. Off the table.”

The board can’t do that, however, because the law says legislators can accept gifts of food and beverage on “infrequent occasions.” The board can attempt to define infrequent, but it can’t replace it with “No occasions.” It also might require a higher standard of reporting by lobbyists and legislators, because even the minimal reporting with the Public Disclosure Commission now required is often incomplete.

The board will consider ways to define infrequent between now and June, when it may have several possibilities to present to the public for more comments. Then it will try to select the best or cobble several ideas into a single rule for a hearing in August, and may vote on the rule in October.

To change infrequent to “nada” would take action by – wait for it – the Legislature. That’s right. The folks on the receiving end of this largesse would have to turn off the spigot by rewriting the statute. The same people who in recent months upped their per diem, the money that’s supposed to compensate them for food and lodging during the session, by $30 a day.

You might argue that amending laws is a legislator’s raison d’être when in session. It’s why those lobbyists pick up the tab.

So it’s conceivable the only way to get significant reform would be for businesses, unions, organizations and consortiums that hire lobbyists to decide they’re done picking up the tab. If enough of them said they weren’t paying for anything after the first week of next session, their lobbyists could take legislators out for one last free meal and explain how their bosses are rearranging their budgets, cutting expenses to have more money to invest in capital projects, or hire new employees or boost dividends to shareholders … whatever spin they think a legislator might want to offer on the floor to explain why he or she is voting to change the law to “nada.”

Clearly, some would need more convincing than others. But if the best minds in lobbying went to work, surely a simple majority in each chamber could be persuaded to take the high road rather than the gravy train.

Spin Control, a weekly column by political reporter Jim Camden, also appears online at www.spokesman.com/blogs/spincontrol.


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