Richard Hodgin is spending his retirement volunteering at food banks. So he sees his share of hungry people jockeying for a bite.
Still didn’t prepare him for the Legislative Ethics Board.
“Man, they really want their free meals!” Hodgin said the other day. “I had no idea when I got into this I would find it was the state legislators who so badly needed nutrition.”
Hodgin is the fellow who filed an ethics complaint last year saying state lawmakers are taking too many free meals from lobbyists. Such freebies are supposed to be “infrequent,” state law says, but they are rampant — one senator last year construed infrequent to mean “62 in a four-month period” (about one free lunch or dinner every other day).
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Hodgin says he knows gratis steak dinners are hardly the biggest problem in democracy, not when billionaires are dumping unlimited cash into campaigns. But there was something about it that stuck in his craw.
Hodgin, of Seattle, has been going to Olympia with a faith group to advocate that more money be spent feeding the poor. In the annual budget banquet, this is begging for table scraps.
Yet the first time he was there, in 2013, the news broke that the state’s top lobbyists had spent $65,000 on free meals for lawmakers just that session, and nearly half a million on entertainment.
Then this year, he was there the day legislators gave themselves a 33 percent raise in their per diem expense rate, to $120 per day.
“So here I am, getting emergency calls from feeding programs, about how they can’t handle the demand, and it just seemed like legislators were taking care of their own needs,” Hodgin said.
So he filed a complaint. That was tossed on procedural grounds. But since then a state ethics panel has been tied in knots of agony trying to answer this question: How many free meals are OK?
And I do mean knots. Here was the proposal before the panel last week:
“Two meals per calendar year (or) three meals in even-numbered years and five meals in odd-numbered years (or) twelve meals per year (or) sixteen meals per year with a maximum of four meals per quarter (or) fifty two meals per year with a maximum of one meal per week.”
What’s clear is lawmakers really want to keep the buffet train going.
One, Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida in Clark County, actually argued that doing away with free food could have a chilling effect on constituent outreach.
“I mean, do you meet with Constituent X if you know you’re going to have to pay?” he asked during a hearing. “Do you go out there on your own dime, and have the meeting anyway and leave frustrated?”
Another, Sen. Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside in Yakima County, told how a group of cattlemen — “good friends” — would buy him dinner whenever they met with him. It’s splitting hairs to suggest the meal confers any special access.
Then he added without a hint of irony: “Of course it’s a moot point now because I don’t represent that area anymore, so they don’t come visit me.”
In the end, the panel grudgingly picked “twelve” as the right figure for noncorruptible free lunches. They further decided that to qualify as a meal, the food has to be received sitting down (if I were a lobbyist for, say, the Washington Restaurant Association, I would be outfitting a Capitol food truck to drive right through that loophole).
Hodgin said it all would be laughable except for how cynical the public has become.
“I’m not one of these people who thinks they’re all corrupt,” Hodgin said of politicians and moneyed lobbyists. “What they are is cozy. The coziness alienates people. That they can’t see this shows how cozy they are.”
How many free meals is OK? Hodgin said the obvious number is the one never floated. It’s simple, easy to remember and eliminates any need for cumbersome reporting and disclosure requirements.
“But they won’t go there,” he said. “I’m flat-out amazed how they’re clinging to their free meals. They won’t even talk about zero.”
Danny Westneat’s column appears Wednesday and Sunday. Reach him at 206-464-2086 or firstname.lastname@example.org