In Our View: Free Lunches in Olympia

Perks from lobbyists, taxpayers' pockets never seem to end for legislators

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There is, they say, no such thing as a free lunch. Yet that traditional axiom apparently is lost on state legislators.

A recent study conducted by The Associated Press, in conjunction with public radio stations, examined just how many free lunches our representatives are receiving thanks to the largesse of lobbyists in Olympia. Examining reports turned in by the lobbyists, the study found that the typical lawmaker enjoyed $445.47 worth of meals, drinks or golf on the lobbyists' dime from January through April of this year. The median number was $406.56.

Among Clark County-based legislators, Sen. Don Benton, R-Vancouver, had banked $712.24 worth of perks from lobbyists. That Benton, he's always a leader, but he's not in the same ballpark as Sen. Doug Erickson, R-Ferndale, who has enjoyed $2,029.30 in benefits from lobbyists this year.

The lowest total among local lawmakers was $285.72 by Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver.

We'll cut Benton a little slack on this one. As a leader in the Senate, he understandably is in demand among lobbyists who wish for unfettered access to the decision-makers in the Legislature.

Yet the amount of money being lavished on lawmakers is problematic for citizens. Allowing lobbyists to have frequent access to legislators can serve to undermine the democratic process and can serve to undermine the never-ending goal of transparent governance. Lobbyists are well-paid advocates for a particular point of view, and allowing lawmakers to wade into a gray area between what's good for the lobbyists and what's good for the people further diminishes public trust in our government.

State ethics law allows for legislators to accept meals on "infrequent occasions." Clearly, an average of more than $400 for a four-month period does not qualify as "infrequent," but the definition of the policy is not spelled out in the law.

We encourage lawmakers to close that loophole and define specific limits on what they may and may not accept from lobbyists. Further, we encourage a streamlined reporting system that is easily accessible for the public. As a story from The Associated Press points out, "In order to find out who is wining and dining representatives, a member of the public would have to review tens of thousands of pages …" Finally, we urge them to close a loophole that allows lawmakers to claim a $90-a-day per diem even if they dine with lobbyists. That money comes from the pockets of taxpayers.

Legislators spent the first part of this year failing to strike a budget agreement, a situation that currently has them serving in a special session. But they have, in that short time, managed to further diminish the confidence of the public.

First, there was a report about how much lawmakers charge the public for dry-cleaning reimbursements while the Legislature is in session. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, was the leader in that field, charging $519 over a two-year period and delivering a memorable quote: "You should look nice and you should smell nice and you should be doing the work of the people." She has said she no longer seeks such reimbursements.

Then there was a report that indicated some legislators have their official portraits touched up at taxpayer expense.

Now, there is a report about the benefits they enjoy at the expense of lobbyists.

The perks never seem to end. On the other hand, perhaps the taxpayers should be glad. At least we know that our representatives will smell nice and that the photos on their business cards will look sharp when they hand them out while enjoying their free lunch.