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Saturday, September 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Editorial: Lobbyist meals, for lawmakers’ sake, should be easy to disclose

As the Washington Legislature’s ethics board prepares new rules for lobbyist meals, it should avoid piling on too many ingredients. The public ought to know when the meetings take place and with whom, but the board is getting bogged down in unnecessary details.

The ethics board, which is made up of legislators and citizens, voted recently to recommend a new law that would limit the number of meals to 12 a year, and require lawmakers to list the total cost of meals and drinks on their annual financial disclosure forms. Lobbyists are already required to report the meals.

In addition, the Public Disclosure Commission recently raised the threshold on reportable freebies to $50, up from $25. This raises the possibility of the 12 meals going unreported if they remain below $50.

The solution is to require lawmakers to report all free fare regardless of value and to eliminate the 12-meal limit. No need to total up the costs. The public is far more interested in who met whom, not what entrees they ordered.

The current distinctions are confusing and border on the absurd. Did lawmakers sit or stand at receptions? Did the cost of food and beverages exceed $49.99 per person?

Under the current proposal for sit-down meals, lobbyists could simply order more than they can eat and drink and share the bounty. It’s not as if an alarm will sound if a lawmaker reaches across the table to stab some fries.

Part-time legislators face full-time schedules during busy times of the year. To meet with everyone who wants and needs their time, some of those discussions will take place over meals. Affixing limits and cost thresholds just assures that some of these meetings will go unreported.

When an expose on lobbyist meals was published a few years back, some lawmakers responded by refusing all free meals. That’s a simple solution for rich lawmakers, but for those living on $42,000 a year, it sets up some unnecessarily awkward decisions about whether to meet. Has the limit been exceeded? Is this important enough to “spend” one of the 12 allowable meals? Is the restaurant high end?

Do they get bonus meals for special sessions?

A blanket disclosure requirement would reveal the frequency of such meetings, and the public could decide whether it’s excessive or ethical.

During its recent revisions, the PDC did simplify the rule on large receptions to which all lawmakers are invited. Hosts would no longer have to estimate the per-lawmaker costs. If the ethics board extended the same idea to sit-down meals, it would make disclosure for legislators much simpler.

Just report it, and make it an easy one-course meal.

To respond to this editorial online, go to www.spokesman.com and click on Opinion under the Topics menu.
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