Rules on accepting free meals in Olympia need more clarity

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Thousands of dollars of meals consumed by state senators but paid for by lobbyists have sparked an investigation by the Legislative Ethics Board. Walla Walla’s Mike Hewitt is one of the five lawmakers whose dining is being scrutinized.

Hewitt’s total dollar amount of meals and drinks bought for him in the most recent legislative session was $1,228, fifth highest total in the Senate. Topping the list was Sen. Doug Ericksen at $2,029.

On the surface, it doesn’t appear Hewitt and his colleagues violated the law allowing lobbyists to pick up the check. Further, Hewitt has done nothing to call his ethics into question. Lobbyists paying for a few meals is accepted practice in Olympia.

Unfortunately, the state has no clear boundaries defining when lawmakers and lobbyists have crossed the line.

The current law on the subject of lawmakers accepting gifts of food or drinks is so nebulous it’s not enforceable. A provision in the law allows officials to accept gifts of food or drinks on “infrequent occasions.”

The law needs to be revisited, tightened and made crystal clear. The Ethics Board expects that will occur.

And if it does, the Seattle resident who filed the complaint with the Ethics Board said he would be satisfied. He said his intent was not to target specific lawmakers but “to crack down on this so in the future it doesn’t happen again.”

That, however, does not mean a total ban on lobbyists picking up any tab. Having a meal with a lobbyists does serve a legitimate purpose for legislators. It can offer an extended, relaxed period of time that can be used for lawmakers to fully understand an issue.

And having a few nice meals, even at an excellent restaurant, covered by lobbyists is not going to buy lawmakers’ votes.

Nevertheless, reasonable thresholds must be established. That would alleviate most of the concerns. But some people see this issue with no shades of gray.

So if lawmakers want to avoid creating any perception of impropriety, they need only make it a personal policy to buy all their own meals.

Some, such as Rep. Chris Hurst, D-Enumclaw, already take this approach.

Hurst told The Associated Press the free meals in Olympia don’t feel right to him, since his constituents don’t get the same benefit and because lawmakers receive a $90 per diem for meal expenses.

Even so, the decision to accept meals is ultimately a personal one.

“That’s between them and their constituents and their conscience,” Hurst said.

He is right, but it is still important for the Ethics Board to bring legal clarity to this issue.

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