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Spin Control: Lawmakers reach compromise on lobbyist-bought food

SUNDAY, AUG. 24, 2014

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. An investigation last year by the Associated Press and National Public Radio showed that some legislators were eating on lobbyists’ dimes so much they apparently had missed the “in” in “infrequently.”

This yearly dozen 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 allotment 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 one of said friends 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. On the other end of the scale, 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,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle.

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.

Few vote in primary

Less than 1 in 3. That’s how many Washington voters cast ballots in this month’s primary.

Spokane County’s turnout of 35 percent was a bit higher than statewide turnout of 31 percent, but still nothing to brag about.

In the midst of the reporting of woeful turnout, Jason Mercier of the Washington Policy Center emailed a link to a story in the Los Angeles Times that a group there is urging the LA City Council to offer cash incentives to vote. No figures have been suggested, but turnout in that city’s mayoral election last year was 23 percent and a recent special school election was 10 percent. Seems like any meaningful amount to generate significant turnout might put a significant drain on city coffers.

One bit of detail from the final vote tallies. Hardly any varied significantly, in terms of percentages, from the totals announced on election night. There’s plenty of grousing about how long it takes for Washington to count its ballots, and it’s a favorite dodge of candidates who are trailing after that first big count to say they want to wait for more returns.

But recent elections have shown that candidates who are behind by more than 1 percent on election night should be making serious plans for a different line of work.

Reporter Jim Camden can be reached at jimc@spokesman.com or (509) 879-7461.


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