Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Alaska State Legislators Bitching About $15 Meal Reporting Limit For Lobbyists, Give Themselves A Huge Black Eye

I did not think the Alaska State Legislature could possibly become more irrelevant than they were during the 2009 session. Boy, was I wrong. Alaska's lawmakers are bitching about something absolutely trivial - the requirement that lobbyists report when they buy legislators any meal or drink over $15.

The Anchorage Daily News reports that there is a bill, HB 193, that could raise the limit to $50 before a lobbyist needs to report. The $15 rule has proven unpopular with legislators who complain it's almost impossible to get a decent dinner in Juneau for less than 15 bucks. In contrast, lawmakers who want to keep the limit counter that lobbyists can pick up the tab for more than $15; they just need to disclose it to the Alaska Public Offices Commission (APOC) and publicly name the legislator or legislative staff member they treated.

Astonishingly, some of the lawmakers who want to raise the limit are actually socially conservative Republicans, the type who profess to be concerned about moral and ethical issues. One of them is Senator John Coghill (R-North Pole), who's been a leader in promoting socially conservative "values" legislation. Coghill explained, "Is a meal unethical? No. Should it be reported? Well, maybe. If you spend $100 bucks on a meal, I think people have a right to know. But if you're just sitting down to a meal with somebody, what's the big deal? It's nothing unethical".

Well, EXCUSE ME, Senator, but how many times are you sitting down to dinner with these lobbyists? And why are you dining with these lobbyists in the first place? Were you elected to represent lobbyists, or constituents? It seems like you forgot why you were elected in the first place.

Another so-called "squeaky clean social conservative", Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom (R-Eagle River), whined that food can be very expensive in rural parts of the state. "I mean, sometimes you can't get an appetizer for $50," Dahlstrom told her colleagues on the judiciary committee. "I really think most of us are really quite reasonable in our food choices. I very seldom even go out to dinner with lobbyists but when I do I can pretty much say with a surety I never order what I really want."

Wah, wah, wah. Here's a clue for you, Nancy Dearest. If you think Juneau's so freaking expensive, how about moving yourself and your colleagues to Anchorage where it is less expensive. Then you can offer us the added bonus of being both more accessible and accountable.

Covered up in the controversy is the fact that HB 193 has some other provisions that might be useful. According to Senator Coghill's sponsor statement, HB 193 would also address the issue of tickets to charity events and disclosure of gifts of tickets for charitable events that have a value of more than $250.00. In addition, the bill also addresses two recommended changes to the statutes that deal with the public members of the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics; first, public members would be paid a $150 a day stipend for attending meetings, and second, an alternate member of the committee selected to replace a regular member of the committee for some purpose would serve for the entire duration of the proceeding.

Next, the bill draws a bright line for legislators and legislative staff to follow for assisting constituents with problems they encounter with state agencies. Once an issue has been appealed to an administrative hearing officer, the legislator or legislative staffer may no longer make contacts with the agency, unless he or she is acting in a private capacity and reports any compensation for the representation to the Select Committee on Legislative Ethics. And finally, this bill reopens the discussion of AS 24.60.030(a)(2), the use of public funds, facilities, etc for the private benefit of either the legislative, a legislative employee, or another person.

But Senator Coghill ought to be savvy enough to understand that many Alaskans have become sensitized to ethical appearances after nearly two years of "ethics warfare" surrounding former Governor Sarah Palin. Bitching about a $15 lobbyist limit on meals just looks bad under the circumstances. Coghill would be smart to sever this provision from the rest of the bill. Rep. Mike Doogan (D-Anchorage) is the one lawmaker who has the right idea - he has a blanket policy of never letting lobbyists buy his meals. The rest should follow this example.

Reaction: This story has triggered criticism of the legislature from all sides. The Anchorage Daily News editorially criticizes the lawmakers, reminding us that lawmakers now earn $50,400 per year. While in session, each receives $189 in per-diem pay (less for lawmakers from Juneau). That's $189 every day, $17,000 for a 90-day session, to cover living expenses including meals. Not only can they and should they pay for their own meals, but if they let the lobbyists pick up their checks, they're taking that meal money provided by the people of Alaska and putting it into their own pockets.

The Anchorage Daily Planet is also critical, asking "Why not make it easy for everybody and just report each and every penny a lobbyist spends on behalf of a lawmaker? Or, lawmakers could simply refuse accept freebies from lobbyists, or anybody else. Those are the only two real choices. Pick one and move on."

On The Alaska Standard, Dan Fagan lashes out at the lawmakers, telling them to buy their own damn meals. Tellingly, he writes, "Our brave men and women of the 2010 class of the Alaska Legislature say they can no longer lead us under the over burdensome requirement of having to report the free meals they get from lobbyists. Currently the same people responsible for sending more than 2000 oil field workers to the unemployment line (with many more to come until ACES is fixed) say they want to raise the $15 dollar threshold for when lobbyists can buy them a meal or some boos without reporting it. These sorry bunch of afraid to lose their power, kiss ass legislators say they want lobbyists to be able to buy them $50 worth of free food and drink without having to let the public know. It will be their little secret they say."

It is appalling that it is Republicans who are behaving this way. The Alaska Republican Party obviously needs a complete flush and transfusion from top to bottom. Don't forget, all the members of the Corrupt Bastards Club were Republicans.

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