Editorial: Do you know who’s wining and dining your lawmaker?
What’s the point of limiting the number of meals lobbyists can purchase for state lawmakers if it’s all based on an honor system?
Seattle Times Editorial
AN occasional free steak might not sway a lawmaker’s vote, but perception matters. Citizens have a right to know whom their elected officials are dining and drinking with during the legislative session — especially if the “whom” are lobbyists with an agenda and they’re picking up the tab.
Full disclosure of meals paid for by lobbyists is not readily available to the public.
State law allows lobbyists to treat lawmakers on an “infrequent” basis. But a joint investigation by The Associated Press and the Northwest News Network found that the state’s top 50 lobbyists spent about $65,000 on lawmakers' meals during the first four months of 2013.
In response, the Washington State Legislative Ethics Board clarified the definition of “infrequent” by limiting legislators to no more than 12 meals per year.
That is a low number, and it’s impossible to enforce if lawmakers don't also pass companion legislation next session that requires some measure of reporting.
The board is drafting a bill that proposes lobbyists would file monthly meal reports outlining whom they treat and the cost of that entertainment. The measure would also require lawmakers to report the same information in their annual financial statements to the Public Disclosure Commission.
The lobbyist reports are usually uploaded to the web as PDF or photo files. The legislators’ statements are not even posted online. This is an old-fashioned way of doing things, but it’s the system the PDC has. The Legislature should ensure the board’s bill is taken up.
Lawmakers ought to also consider updates to the commission’s software to allow for much more convenient electronic reporting. Previous efforts by state Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, to pay for upgrades by charging fees to lobbyists went nowhere.
Special-interest groups dole out millions each year in entertainment expenses to shape public policy. They can afford to be more transparent.
Regardless of how often state law allows lobbyists to pick up the tab for lawmakers, the key is to ensure that information is easy to report and accessible to constituents.
Editorial board members are editorial page editor Kate Riley, Frank A. Blethen, Ryan Blethen, Mark Higgins, Jonathan Martin, Thanh Tan, Blanca Torres, Robert J. Vickers, William K. Blethen (emeritus) and Robert C. Blethen (emeritus).