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State Senators Want Ethics Boards — Not Lawmakers — To Define ‘Infrequent’ Meals

Washington’s ethics boards should define how often lawmakers can dine out at lobbyist expense, according to nearly a dozen state senators who’ve signed onto a proposal that would direct legislative and executive ethics panels to clarify the rules for lobbyist-paid meals.

Washington law allows state lawmakers to accept free meals from lobbyists on an “infrequent” basis. But that’s never been defined.

Last year, we, in partnership with the Associated Press, reported on lawmakerswho regularly allowed lobbyists to pick up the tab. That prompted an ethics investigation that ultimately cleared lawmakers named in the complaint and deferred to the legislature to define “infrequent.”

But Sen. Joe Fain, R-Auburn, believes ethics watchdogs, not lawmakers, should make that call “so that there’s no question in the minds of either lobbyists, legislators or the public what that standard is.”

Fain does believe the Legislature should require electronic reporting of entertainment expenses. His proposed bill would charge lobbyists an annual fee to create a new online reporting system.

Fain says his interest is in making sure the reports are accurate and transparent to the public.

Rep. Jim Moeller, D-Vancouver, has long pushed for electronic filing of lobbyist reports. He says he’s been assured his measure get a vote in the Democratically-controlled House this year. Moeller adds that he thinks lawmakers are in a position this year to define what “infrequent” meals means.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy as well as the Washington State legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia." Prior to joining the Northwest News Network, Austin worked as a television reporter in Seattle, Portland and Boise. Austin is a graduate of Garfield High School in Seattle and Connecticut College in New London, Connecticut. Austin’s reporting has been recognized with awards from the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors, Public Radio News Directors Incorporated and the Society of Professional Journalists.