Wining and dining the budget-writers

House lawmakers took a break from the budget debate tonight for dinner and drinks, paid for by groups the budget would affect. And it's all legal.

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Laura Leslie

You know what they say about all work and no play.

After more than 4 hours of heated budget debate, the House took a 90-minute dinner break tonight to attend several receptions thrown in their honor by groups with interests before the legislature.

This is nothing new. And it’s not illegal, either.

For years, under Democrats and Republicans alike, lobbying associations for every cause – corporations to environmentalists – have thrown these fetes for the honorables. They usually include various appetizers, maybe sandwiches, an open bar, and a lot of interested parties hoping to bend the ear of a lawmaker to the needs of their particular group.

Ethics laws passed in recent years have banned lobbyists from taking small groups of lawmakers out for dinner and drinks. Supporters of those changes said they would get rid of the wine-and-dine culture that kept Raleigh restaurants flush for many years. And many lobbyists, especially those with less-wealthy principals, breathed a not-so-private sigh of relief.

Well, the ethics changes did cut back on the gravy-train culture, but it didn’t eliminate it. Once dinners were banned, receptions got a LOT more popular.

The state’s “gift ban” law specifically allows for the provision of food and drink by special interest groups at receptions. You can find the rules on pages 33-35 of this handout from the State Ethics Commission.

As long as the group invites an entire body – from the whole legislature down to a committee or delegation – and has more than 10 other folks in attendance, they can provide lawmakers with whatever goodies they like.

And the reception doesn’t have to be open to the public. Many are – in this case, we got the okay to be there – but they don’t have to be.

Such events may be technically legal, but they seem to conflict with the state ethics commission’s overall advice that lawmakers are generally banned from “using their public position for private gain,” “accepting additional compensation for performing public duties,” or “accepting honoraria.” 

Given that your average citizen doesn’t get a nightly invite to free crabcakes and booze, it’s hard to see how the exception fits into the spirit of the law. In fact, it looks like a loophole you could drive a truck full of canapes through. 

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