After a state ethics board restricted the number of free meals lawmakers could accept, the question has become: What counts as a meal?

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OLYMPIA — A state ethics board this year imposed a hard limit on how many free meals state lawmakers may take from lobbyists: 12 a year.

Now, questions have arisen that vex special interests, politicos and bellies alike: What counts as a meal?

Sure, a sit-down dinner — lawmaker and lobbyist locking eyes over steak — would easily fit the definition of the new rule.

But the state Legislative Ethics Board (LEB) on Thursday discussed how to proceed on the trickier elements of group dining. Like, for instance, complimentary food provided to lawmakers by local government officials or by industry groups at group meetings or forums, or even potlucks between legislators and lobbyists.

LEB members Thursday approved a motion stating there’s no special exemption for industry groups such as the Washington Bankers Association, or, say, the Washington Restaurant Association, which may feed lawmakers attending functions such as a luncheon or forum.

But that motion also stressed that such forums likely fall within an existing exemption for lawmakers, and so probably wouldn’t count as one of the 12 meals.

The board also approved a motion seeking more guidance from LEB staff on whether a legislative lunch or forum hosted by a government entity falls within existing law that would exempt it from the 12-meal rule.

Board members intended the discussion to provide clarity about whether lawmakers could face ethics complaints at such meals.

“I think you got 147 members [of the Legislature] and more members of the lobby community who are just kind of running around scared,” board member Rep. Brandon Vick, R-Felida, Clark County, said during the meeting. “Because all the press and all the news is about this 12-meal limit.”

It shouldn’t be so difficult to figure out, Vick said, which meals are permissible.

The rules and discussion follow a review in 2013 by The Associated Press found that the state’s most active lobbyists had lavished hundreds of meals upon lawmakers — estimated at more than $65,000 in value — in the first four months of that year.

That review and a complaint filed against some lawmakers later that year spurred the ethics board to clarify how often lawmakers could accept free meals from lobbyists.

Denny Eliason, lobbyist for the Washington Bankers Association and Washington Restaurant Association, said afterward that his groups were concerned about regional meetings they hold with lawmakers to discuss legislative priorities.

Those groups, are trying to “draw the very real distinction” between such group meetings and a lobbyist taking a legislator out to dinner, Eliason said.

Rep. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia and chairman of the House State Government Committee, said Wednesday that questions over the new rule have made lobbyists and legislators wary about meeting and discussing issues.

Hunt cited one scenario being discussed by the ethics board Thursday: whether a large organization, like a union or trade association, could hold an event where lawmakers got fed.

“That counts as a meal, right?” said Hunt, who also questioned how the rule could be effectively enforced.

“I think,” he said, “we’re getting carried away.”

And the verdict on potlucks? Board members voted to hold off on that discussion until next year.