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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Legislators not entitled to free lunch

Some ethical purists are concerned about all the free lunches – and free dinners, and free breakfasts, and free drinks, and free golf, and free heavy apps at free receptions – being lavished upon Washington’s lawmakers when they’re in Olympia.

It’s a question of independence and influence-peddling. But there is another, potentially more devastating problem with all the generosity flowing from lobbyists to legislators: the risk of dependency.

Once you start giving lawmakers free meals, they will begin to rely on those free meals. Once they begin to rely on those free meals, they will lose their natural, God-given desire to hunt and gather, to earn for themselves. Then they will be stuck in a position of moral turpitude and economic subservience, with their hands out, their work ethics eroded, having forgotten how to contribute productively to society or even to remember quotations from Ayn Rand.

They will become takers for life, reliant upon the Western States Petroleum Association to feed them every January through April.

In case you’re not up to speed on this threat, here’s a little background: Some lawmakers in Olympia eat on lobbyists’ dimes several times each week during the legislative session. Some do so while continuing to accept $90 a day in taxpayer money for expenses like food. These little favors – which lawmakers assure us do not influence their votes in any way – are virtually impossible to track.

The Associated Press and other media organizations undertook a massive effort earlier this year to analyze the wining and dining of the 50 most active lobbying groups. They found that $65,000 in meals and social freebies would be flowing to lawmakers during the four months of the 2013 legislative session. In the moneyball world of politics, that ain’t much. But during the time-crunched months of a legislative session, plenty of convivial access to a friendly legislative ear is priceless.

An ethics complaint arose, targeting the top five free eaters: Republican Sens. Doug Ericksen of Ferndale, Steve Litzow of Mercer Island, Joe Fain of Auburn, Mike Hewitt of Walla Walla and Mark Schoesler of Ritzville.

The complaint was dismissed this month, because the state’s legislative ethics law is pitifully vague; it says that the free meals should be “infrequent.” The legislative ethics panel that dismissed the complaint says the state should clarify its rules, and Schoesler – who depended on the kindness of lobbyists to the tune of $1,101 – agreed.

“I think all of us, regardless of party, would like to see clarity to what is ‘frequent’, ‘infrequent,’ ” he said. “Clear, updated information would be supported by all.”

The top free eater was Ericksen, chairman of the Senate’s energy and environmental committee. He told the AP he sees no problem with accepting a $90 per diem while also accepting free meals from lobbyists.

“A $49 dinner is not going to sway me from doing what’s right for my constituents,” Ericksen said.

How about 14 dinners? That’s how many times Ericksen, who is a good friend to global warming “skeptics,” was fed by the Western States Petroleum Association. All told, Ericksen got 62 of these social freebies from lobbyists in the first four months of the year, worth more than a couple grand, according to the AP investigation.

In other words, Ericksen was accepting some kind of gift from a lobbyist every other day that in no way swayed him from doing what’s right for his constituents.

Hewitt, the Walla Walla senator, said he wasn’t surprised that the ethics complaint was dismissed.

“Nobody broke any laws,” Hewitt said. “I’m not there to break the law, and I’m not there to be purchased. It’s offensive to think someone could buy me over dinner.”

See how the dependency mindset takes root? See how it blinds, distorts, entraps? First, someone starts feeding you. Then they feed you a little more. The beef tenderloin and braised rabbit lasagna begin to add up. Over the course of a couple months, you find they have fed you more than $1,200 worth of food – which was Hewitt’s total this year.

You begin to lose your capacity for embarrassment. You start to have difficulty seeing strings attached to these free meals. You begin to feel that perhaps these free meals are your due. You get a … what’s the word? A sense of entitlement.

The next thing you know, you’re offended someone might look askance at your constant, mutual foot-rub with the special interests.

It’s a killer, this dependency. If we don’t get a handle on it, it’s going to simply destroy the moral fiber of these lawmakers.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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