The Washington Legislative Ethics Board voted 9-0 Thursday to limit state legislators to 12 free meals a year.
Under the ethics rules, a "meal" consists of both food and a drink. Consequently, a coffee without a donut or a beer without pretzels won’t count as part of that 12-free-meal limit. Neither does a hot dog — with no beverage.
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 $120 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. Legislators have been allowed to accept “infrequent” meals from lobbyists, but the rules haven’t defined what that means until now.
Last year, corporations and organizations spent roughly $54 million on lobbying, including roughly $500,000 for meals and entertainment, said Andrea McNamara Doyle, executive director of the Washington Public Disclosure Commission. The PDC will likely be in charge of tracking the free meals in the future.
"I think it will be unlikely that there will be a repeat of the use of [free] meals that we saw in the 2013 session," said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle and a member of the ethics board.
"I want to know who is attempting to curry legislators by buying them meals .... Perhaps it's just a baby step. But it is ones step to take," said Andrea Cohen, one of five people testifying favor of the new rule or for a stricter version of it. No one testified for a less-restrictive approach.
Lee Suitor, another member of the public, said, "I want an accounting of how my public servant did his work. ... I want to know who my representative has eaten with and how often.”
Richard Hodgin, whose complaint about the free meals to the ethics board helped sparked its deliberations, said, “Without accountability and transparency, there can be no public trust in the system.”
Another member of the public, Jay Heyman, said: "You have a historical opportunity to begin the process of reform. Without reform, we face more of a future of politics driven by money."
The new rule goes into effect on Jan. 1. In December, the ethics board will consider whether to request the Legislature add extra clout to the board's rule by introducing a bill to put the measure into state law.
There are some wrinkles and exceptions to the 12-free-meal rule. Complimentary food at an event does not count toward the 12-meal limit. A lobbying group can provide a meal to a committee between regular annual sessions whenever the whole committee is having a working lunch; that won't count toward the limit. Meals paid by federal and state agencies during a tour do not count. Guidelines will exist for some other situations that fall in gray areas between a lobbyist-paid meal and a reception attended by legislators and lobbyists.
Pedersen predicted compliance with the new rules, saying, "I think most legislators want to follow the rules."