The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

No more free lunch: Washington sets limits on how often lobbyists can ply lawmakers

A worker uses a lift while repairing masonry on the exterior of the Legislative Building, Tuesday, Oct. 7, 2014 at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Lobbyists in Olympia, Wash., used to be able to buy lawmakers lunch all the time. Now, the state ethics panel is putting the brakes on just how often lawmakers can dine on someone else’s tab.

The state Legislative Ethics Board voted 9-0 on Tuesday to limit lawmakers to 12 free meals paid for by lobbyists each year. The rules take effect on Jan. 1, in time for the 2015 legislative session. The new rules apply to any breakfast, lunch and dinner paid for by lobbyists during which legislative business is discussed.

Lawmakers already had to disclose any meals or gifts valued at more than $50 they receive from lobbyists to the state’s Public Disclosure Commission. But state ethics rules didn’t put any limits on just how many of those meals or gifts lawmakers accepted.

And unlike campaign finance reporting, which must be filed online, gift reports are only required to be filed on paper.

Lobbyists and lawmakers were both aware of the loophole: A 2013 investigation by the Associated Press and two public radio stations — KUOW and KPLU — found the state’s 50 most active lobbyists spent more than $65,000 on hundreds of meals lawmakers enjoyed last year.

At the same time they were accepting the free meals, lawmakers took home a taxpayer-funded $90 per diem fee every day the legislature is in session. That money is supposed to cover food, lodging, transportation and other expenses associated with traveling to and staying in Olympia.

The AP investigation found some lawmakers accepted dozens of meals during the legislative session. State Sen. Doug Ericksen (R) accepted 62 free meals, drinks or rounds of golf from lobbyists, adding up to more than $2,000, the investigation found. Four other state senators accepted more than $1,000 in free meals last year.

State law specifies that lawmakers may accept free meals on “infrequent occasions,” though there is no definition on what that means.

The new rules leave at least one loophole wide open: The ethics board made sure to say the 12-meal limit did not apply to receptions hosted by organizations where a buffet is set up for lawmakers and staff to grab a bite. Lobbyists and their clients routinely host receptions at the state Capitol building to press their pet issues.