There's no such thing as a free lunch in Juneau

Posted: Sunday, February 28, 2010

I'm a big fan of eating, especially sharing a meal with other people. That must be why I'm putting on weight.

I'm also a big fan of paying my own way now that I represent the people of Juneau in the state Senate. A couple of my colleagues apparently think it's OK for lobbyists and others to privately wine and dine them, and are trying to change the law to make that easier. I am opposed to that change and will vote against it.

Specifically, people are talking about changing a law that says a lobbyist can buy a legislator a meal, but if it costs more than $15 they have to report that expense. The proposal is to change the limit to $50.

The current law is already too weak. I'd prefer an outright ban on lobbyists buying legislators meals. What might be OK between private citizens simply won't do for lobbyists and decision makers.

Sitting down to a good meal is a great chance to get to know someone while you talk about the issues. We spend plenty of time in the Legislature with charts and graphs, facts, figures and philosophies. But - especially with the 90-day session - there's not much time to get to know one another. And when we need to work through the kind of really tough issues that people get upset about, it helps to be friends. That makes it a lot easier to work together on the next tough issue, and the one after that.

It doesn't matter much to me whether folks take turns getting the check, or split it or go back and forth cooking. (Actually, if I'm involved, somebody else should probably do the cooking.) It's just another good chance to work together for Alaskans.

But the rules are different for lobbyists. I talk to lobbyists a lot now that I have this job in the Senate. I think they'd be in my office all day long if I didn't shoo them out to make room for constituents, state agencies, folks from other Alaska communities, and just about every other bunch of Alaskans I can imagine. I also talk to my staff and occasionally visit my mom.

So why should there be a report of the times a lobbyist buys the food instead of a constituent, a state official or anybody else? It's because lobbyists make a living trying to get the Legislature to do (or not do) stuff. And Alaskans deserve to see how they do that. So far, the ones I've talked to all work in about the same way - they argue the facts as their client sees them, then make a pitch for changing things or leaving them alone.

Lobbyists also have to show Alaskans who their clients are and what those clients pay them. They have to report their lobbying expenses. As a legislator, I have to disclose my sources of income, which is like doing a second set of tax returns each year. Yeah, it's a lot of paperwork, but Alaskans deserve to know who pays the bills and where the money flows around government.

In the Senate Finance Committee room and on the Office of Management and Budget Web site, there are about 8,000 pages of information on how money flows within the government, too. Because Alaskans deserve to know.

So I'll vote to keep the law that lets Alaskans know when lobbyists buy meals. And I'll try to lose some of this extra weight, too. Right after session.

• Dennis Egan, a Democrat, represents Juneau in the Alaska Senate.

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