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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Panel sets limit for Washington lawmakers’ free meals

OLYMPIA – Legislators could accept as many as a dozen free meals from lobbyists each year under a new rule adopted by their ethics board.

But in what could be described as only a partial victory for public accountability, their constituents will have no way of keeping track of those meals unless legislators agree to change state law next year to allow for better reporting of the freebies.

For months, the Legislative Ethics Board has wrestled with a way to describe “infrequent,” a word undefined in the state law that says legislators may accept infrequent meals from lobbyists. The board agreed unanimously Tuesday that 12 or fewer meals would be the standard, starting Jan. 1. That works out to one a month, but they can have them over any period they wish.

That same law says legislators and lobbyists must report to the Public Disclosure Commission meals or other gifts of more than $50. The new ethics rule says a meal is breakfast, lunch or dinner – a buffet-style reception where they don’t sit down doesn’t count, but almost anything else with food does – regardless of cost. So to require all meals to be reported to the PDC, or someone else, requires a change in law, which only the Legislature can do.

The scrutiny of legislative freebies was prompted by news reports led by Northwest Public Radio that some legislators were eating regularly on lobbyists’ tabs during the session. One state senator had 62 meals, receptions and other events over four months.

Members of the public told the ethics board they could accept a standard that limited legislators to 12 free meals per year, even though some said they’d like the number lower.

“I want to know if I can trust the people I vote for to listen to all sides, not just the sides of well-heeled lobbyists,” said Andrea Cohen, of Seattle. “Perhaps it’s just a baby step, but it’s a step worth taking.”

But Cohen and others said the new limit is only good if the public can monitor compliance by legislators and lobbyists. There the board hit a snag because it can define a vague term like infrequent by adopting a rule for legislators to follow, but it can’t change existing law that says lobbyist meals and gifts more than $50 must be reported but is silent on what happens to meals of lesser value.

The PDC currently keeps records on the meals more than $50, but the system is so antiquated that Executive Director Andrea McNamara Doyle compared it to a VCR in an age of Blu-ray and high-definition television. It will be asking the Legislature for more money next year to upgrade its reporting system, she said.

The board discussed having legislators file their reports with the House or Senate clerks, but administrative staff said that would be like the Legislature reporting to itself. After adopting the 12-meal standard, the board ordered its staff to draft potential legislation that would revise the law and consider how much more the PDC would need to upgrade its system to handle the new reports.

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