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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spin Control

Lawmakers struggle over how to define meals

By Chad Sokol
Murrow News Service

OLYMPIA – Washington lawmakers can take up to 12 meals per year from lobbyists, but just what constitutes a “meal” – or who gets to define it – isn’t clear.

The Legislative Ethics Board tried to clear that up Tuesday, just four months after creating the 12-meal rule to limit freebies. In the end, however, the board decided that’s a decision for the Legislature.

“I get a sense that legislators are trying to comply with the 12 meals,” said Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida. “I just feel like there's a lot of ambiguity out there for meals that are more social in nature rather than policy-driven.”

State law says legislators may accept infrequent meals from lobbyists. After wrestling for months to define “infrequent,” the board in October settled on 12 free meals or fewer per year, although legislators can have them over any period they wish.

Vick asked fellow board members to clarify the new rule. Suggestions included exempting potlucks where legislators bring their own food, events to which the whole Legislature is invited, and meals provided by local governments.

Keith Buchholz, an aide to the ethics board, said the legality of free meals is a gray area. Some local governments contract with professional lobbyists, so exempting them could make the rule null and void, he said.

Sen. Jamie Pedersen said the Legislature, not the ethics board, should adjust the rule.

The state law says legislators and lobbyists must report meals or gifts over $50 to the Public Disclosure Commission. Pedersen, D-Seattle, is sponsoring a bill to drop the $50 requirement. A second bill attempts to merge the 12-meal limit with the PDC requirement, and a third would bar legislators from accepting gifts altogether.

Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, said it's too soon for the board to tweak a rule that took effect Jan. 1: “The board does not have the appetite to adopt the proposed amendments.”


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