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A limit on lawmakers’ free lunches

Proposed ethics guidelines would leave no doubt for legislators: This is a meal. Credit: Cambridge Brewing Company/Flickr

The Washington Legislative Ethics Board has come up a definition for the word "infrequent": 12 or less.

That appears to be the number of free meals a state legislator will be able to accept from lobbyists in a year. In a 5-to-3 vote on Tuesday, the ethics board tentatively set one dozen meals as the proposed limit. A final vote by the board, which is composed of four legislators and five citizen members, is scheduled for Oct. 21.

Currently, a legislator is allowed to accept free meals from lobbyists only infrequently, but there’s no clearer definition of what that means.

The board also defined "meal" as a sit-down affair with both food and drink — meaning a beer or a coffee won't count as one of the 12 meals as long as pretzels or donuts are not included. A barbeque at a lobbyist's home will count as a free meal. But a hosted reception, at which people often stand around while eating and drinking, will not count. 

"You can go out with any lobbyist at any time (beyond the 12th meal) as long as it is on your own dime." said board Chair Kristine Hoover, a Gonzaga University faculty member.

The issue has come up because a joint Associated Press and Northwest Public Radio investigation earlier this year showed that numerous legislators accept a significant number of free meals from lobbyists, while also collecting $90 a day during a session from the state for expenses, including meals.

The top six meal recipients during the four-month regular 2013 session were Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, with meals valued at $2,,029; Sen. Steve Litzow, R-Mercer Island, at $1,477; Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, at $1,428; Sen. Mike Hewitt, R-Walla Walla, at $1,228; Sen. Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, at $1,101; and Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, at $1,041.

In its preliminary votes on Tuesday, the ethics board zeroed in on the definitions of "infrequent” and "meal," but punted until Oct. 21 on mapping out reporting requirements that will be imposed on legislators.

Board member Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, raised a question about whether free meals from non-lobbyists should also be included in the ethics rules for legislators dealing with registered lobbyists. The non-lobbyist question went nowhere, and free meals from registered lobbyists are the only ones included in the proposed new rules.

Originally, some of the eight ethics board members at the meeting proposed limits of one free meal a month or three per year. Five eventually settled on 12 free meals per legislator each year. These five were Pedersen, Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, Eugene Green, Kenny Pittman and Hoover. 

Board members Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, and Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Camas, wanted a limit of 24 free meals from lobbyists per year. Board member Stephen Johnson suggested a limit of 18 free meals. Johnson and Green then suggested compromising at 15 a year. "I have troubles with the perception that I'm for sale. … I think less than two a month is infrequent," Honeyford said.

But Pedersen noted that a limit of 12 meals per year already had five votes, a majority of the entire board, which prompted Green to withdraw from the 15 figure. Board member Gary Bashor was absent.

Pedersen said, "I don't see how multiple meals in a week can be considered infrequent with a straight face."

Two people testified Tuesday to the board in favor of limiting the free meals "There are those with good ethical compasses who just need driving guidelines,” said Paul Telford of Thurston County. “For those without good ethical compasses, it will always be a challenge."

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