In Our View: A Matter of Ethics

Legislative board will consider rules to alter ties between lawmakers, lobbyists

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It is the kind of behind-the-scenes work that won't garner headlines, but it plays a role in how lawmakers do their jobs and in how effectively the Legislature serves the public interest. This month, Washington’s Legislative Ethics Board will consider proposals to alter how the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists is monitored and reported.

This really should be an exercise in simplicity, and it would be if Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, had his way. Moeller long has championed bills in the House of Representatives that would require lobbyists to electronically file expense reports and would establish an online database of such expenses. His latest proposal — co-sponsored by Rep. Sharon Wylie, D-Vancouver — was passed unanimously by the House during this year’s session but withered and died of neglect in the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

The need for such legislative action was highlighted last year in a report from The Associated Press in conjunction with Northwest Public Radio. Through the first four months of the 2013 session in Olympia, the 50 most active registered lobbyists spent $65,000 buying meals for lawmakers. The biggest beneficiary of such largesse was Sen. Doug Ericksen, R-Ferndale, who, as chairman of the Energy, Environment & Telecommunications Committee, was a frequent guest of oil industry lobbyists and received more than $2,000 in meals, drinks, and golf during the four-month period. This would seem to conflict with Washington ethics law, which prohibits public officials from accepting free meals on more than “infrequent occasions.”

Well, it would seem to conflict if anybody would bother to define “infrequent,” something the Legislature chose not to do during this year’s session.

Either way, it does present a concern for citizens. While being informed on the issues and meeting with stakeholders is an important function of being a lawmaker — particularly for a legislative leader — the amount of money spent on influence peddling tends to undermine the democratic process. Government works best and retains the faith of the public when all steps are taken to remain above reproach and to avoid the perception of impropriety. Ignoring the law’s “infrequent occasions” provision simply undermines the public trust.

That is where the Legislative Ethics Board comes in. The nine-member panel, a combination of lawmakers and citizens, began working in April to draw up plans for revamping the rules governing lobbyists’ generosity. One idea would have lawmakers file a public report when lobbyists treat them to meals or drinks costing as little as $5. Another idea would limit free meals to three or five per year. And another would deduct the cost of any bought-for meals from the legislator’s per diem — which is increasing to $120 next year. “I think basically if you have to foot the bill yourself, the number of meals would go down dramatically,” said Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, who serves on the ethics board.

Board members will begin taking comments on the proposals this month, and Pedersen said they hope to hear from lawmakers and lobbyists on how a rule change could affect them. We, too, would be interested in hearing that. According to Austin Jenkins of Northwest Public Radio, all state lobbyists last year reported nearly $54 million in expenses.

Clearly, the ethics board should take some action to curb the appetite of lawmakers. It won’t be as eye-catching as a groundbreaking new law, but it will improve how the Washington Legislature serves the public.