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News / Clark County News

Ethics panel eyes lawmakers’ meals

It wants state legislators to report all instances of dining paid for by lobbyists

The Columbian
Published: December 3, 2014, 12:00am

An ethics panel wants lawmakers to report the number of free sitdown meals they accept, no matter how much they cost.

The Legislative Ethics Board previously limited the number of free meals lawmakers could accept to 12 meals a year, and legislators currently have to report meals costing more than $50. At a meeting Tuesday, the board approved a motion requesting that lawmakers publicly report free meals, no matter the dollar value.

The move follows a decision to define “infrequent occasions,” the term previously used to determine the number of acceptable free meals. But the board lacks the authority to include a reporting requirement with the change; requesting legislation, however, sends a strong message, said Michael O’Connell, the board’s legal counsel.

A proponent of the motion, Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, said lawmakers must abide by the new rule using the honor system.

Reporting meals, he said, would give the public “confidence the rule is being followed.”

The suggested language would require legislators to report their free meals on an annual basis and lobbyists would need to report monthly.

Earlier this year, the ethics board voted to define “infrequent occasions” and the new rule takes effect in January. The change came after The Associated Press and a consortium of public radio stations uncovered 50 of the state’s most active lobbyists spent $65,000 on meals for lawmakers in the first four months of 2013, according to The Associated Press.

A complaint was dismissed because there was no definition of “infrequent occasion” that would have put limits on the practice of wining and dining lawmakers.

Southwest Washington lawmaker Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, who sits on the panel, voted against the motion.

He said he supports the overall concept of reporting, but didn’t want to put his name on a piece of legislation before seeing the language.

“It’s tough to sign your name to a vote without seeing what the language is,” Vick said.

“I guess, I would be more interested in or open to … maybe a notification, a letter to the Legislature that said, ‘We did this, as far as defining what infrequent is, there is no reporting mechanism tied to that,’ kind of an FYI, do with this what you will, so they are aware. … But without sending an actual piece of legislation over. If there’s a happy medium, that’s where I would be,” Vick said.