No such thing as a free lunch? There is for state lawmakers

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) - Lawmakers would be able to accept just 12 free lunches 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: Sen. Jamie Pederson, D-Seattle, Rep. Drew Hansen, D-Bainbridge Island, and citizen members Eugene Green of Lakewood, board chairwoman Kristine Hoover of Spokane, and vice chairman Kenny Pittman of Lacey.

"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," Pittman said. "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?"

Hansen, calling in to the meeting by phone, noted that lawmakers have plenty of options that "do not involve a lobbyist buying you a lunch or dinner."

"You can buy your own burrito with a lobbyist," he said.

Lawmakers already have 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. Last year, the board dismissed a complaint filed about the practice, noting that that the "infrequent occasion" rule is not clearly defined in the Ethics in Public Service Act.

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.