Alaska editorial: They can't be serious

Posted: Monday, March 01, 2010

Ladies and gentlemen of the Legislature, kindly get a grip.

Sen. John Coghill and some of his legislative colleagues want to raise the limit of what lobbyists can spend on lawmakers' meals without reporting it. He wants to raise the limit from $15 to $50.

Why? Well, it seems that good meals cost more than $15 in Juneau and other parts of the state. And if a lawmaker should go to lunch with a lobbyist and order something that costs $17.50, that lobbyist has to report the meal and who it was for.

What's the problem here? Are we supposed to feel sympathy for the poor lobbyist who must report the expenditure? Empathize with the lawmaker who skips the soup to spare the lobbyist? Lament for the lawmaker who suffers without dessert so there need be no public report of her meal with the lobbyist?

That law is on the books precisely to limit the influence of lobbyists and provide maximum public knowledge of the relationships between lobbyists and lawmakers. If lobbyists don't want to report what they spend on lawmakers, they should find another line of work. If lawmakers think they're entitled to be wined and dined - or even burgered and fried - by lobbyists without the public knowing about it, they should find another line of work.

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.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Legislature, pay for your own meals. If you don't, and let the lobbyists pick up your checks, you're taking that meal money provided by the people of Alaska and putting it into your pocket. But if you do, you can order whatever you like within your budget, just like the rest of us.

That per diem allows you to pay your own way. Use it.

Two other points are worth making on this score:

First, what is it exactly that makes some lawmakers think they need or deserve meals from lobbyists? Because that's the way we've always done business? That's hardly reason enough. Lawmakers should feel free to break bread with anyone, from constituents' kids to corporate lobbyists but should cover their share on Alaska's nickel, so there's no doubt about who they represent.

And so there's no doubt that it's the lawmaker, not the lobbyist, who decides who gets how much access.

Second, for the love of representative democracy, lawmakers should never whine about how much lobbyists can spend on feeding them. We have Coghill complaining that it's a joke, that he and the lobbyist have to make sure his meal doesn't go over $15. Take a step back, senator, and think about how this sounds to constituents who, on the rare occasions when they do go out to eat, have to pay for it themselves.

And we have Rep. Nancy Dahlstrom, who notes that she rarely orders what she really wants, that sometimes you can't get a good appetizer at the table for $50. Dahlstrom, when your constituents treat themselves at Garcia's in Eagle River they order what they can afford and pay for it themselves. Or they stay home and make burritos.

Both Coghill and Dahlstrom have earned reputations as principled straight shooters. Makes you wonder how they got so far off target here.

Ladies and gentlemen of the Legislature, it's time to pick up your reality check.

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