Panel puts lawmakers on free-meals diet

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OLYMPIA — Lawmakers would be able to accept just 12 free meals from lobbyists each year under a plan from a legislative ethics panel.

The Legislative Ethics Board voted Tuesday 5-3 to define, for the first time, what current law means when it prohibits public officials from accepting free meals on more than “infrequent occasions.” The rule wouldn’t take effect until a final vote later this year on the overall proposal surrounding rules concerning meals.

Republican Sen. Jim Honeyford of Sunnyside, a member of the board, said he would like a higher number, saying that “I think two per month or less is infrequent.”

He then suggested 15 per year, but that motion failed, with only three votes in favor.

While a handful of the board members pushed for a limit of three meals a year, ultimately, the decision to settle on 12 was approved with the support of five members.“It does not mean you can’t have meal 13, 14, 15, 16, etc., with a lobbyist, it’s just that the lobbyist can’t pay for it,” said vice chairman Kenny Pittman of Lacey, who voted for the rule. “This does not limit access by lobbyists to legislators, it’s just that after 12 you have to pay for your own meal.”

Voting no were Honeyford, Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, and former Republican Sen. Steven Johnson.

“The problem is that there’s a feeling that if you go to lunch at all, all of your activity here is being corrupted,” Johnson said. “I guess it could be just as corrupted in three meals or 20 meals. So what are we getting at?”

Lawmakers already have a daily stipend — known as a per diem ­— of $120 a day during the legislative session.

The board also voted Tuesday to define a meal as a sit-down meal — such as breakfast or lunch — regardless of the cost or value, and even if the meal is at a private residence.

Receptions hosted by lobbyists would not count as a meal.

The proposed changes come after The Associated Press and a consortium of public radio stations found that the state’s 50 most active lobbyists spent $65,000 in meals for lawmakers in the first four months of 2013.

The ethics board is set to meet again in October, where they are expected to discuss public disclosure requirements surrounding meals, and when they could potentially vote to approve the overall changes.

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