Oct 14, 6:38 PM EDT

Panel votes on limit for free meals for lawmakers



OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) -- Starting in January, lawmakers can accept no more than 12 free meals from lobbyists each year under a rule approved unanimously Tuesday by a legislative ethics panel.

The Legislative Ethics Board voted to reaffirm an August vote to define what current law means when it prohibits public officials from accepting free meals on more than "infrequent occasions."

The change came after The Associated Press and a consortium of public radio stations found that the state's 50 most active lobbyists spent $65,000 on meals for lawmakers in the first four months of 2013.

Last year, the board dismissed a complaint filed about the practice, noting that the "infrequent occasion" rule is not clearly defined in the Ethics in Public Service Act.

"It's great that we've finally given some clarity to this concept of infrequent meals, but there are a lot of other important questions related to disclosure and reporting and limits that the Legislature should address," Rep. Drew Hansen, a Democrat from Bainbridge Island who is a member of the board, said after the vote on Tuesday.

The board planned to meet again before the end of the year to consider draft legislation to change the current law that only requires meals worth $50 or more to be reported to the state Public Disclosure Commission.

Board member and Sen. Jamie Pedersen, D-Seattle, suggested that any potential bill should change that law to include all meals claimed under the rule approved Tuesday, because the new rule covers all meals, regardless of cost.

The board also approved several examples to be included in the legislative ethics manual that detail what would count toward the allotment of meals.

A simple cup of coffee with a lobbyist while discussing legislative issues doesn't count toward the limit, nor does a sit-down dinner hosted by a school PTA where lobbyists donated money and the meals are free. However, an invitation to a lobbyist's home to have a buffet-style meal would count under the "infrequent occasion" rule.

Lawmakers already have a daily stipend - known as a per diem - of $120 a day during the legislative session to cover expenses.

The rule approved Tuesday also defines a meal as a sit-down meal such as breakfast or lunch, even if the meal is served at a private residence. Receptions hosted by lobbyists would not count as a meal.

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