For Alaska legislators, there is such a thing as a free lunch. If it costs a lobbyist more than $15, however, it will soon have to be reported.
A new ethics bill, approved by the Legislature and awaiting the signature of Gov. Sarah Palin, includes the meal requirement among many new regulations. In some quarters of Juneau, the $15 reporting rule is drawing the most attention.
"In this town, and most any town in Alaska, you can't even eat lunch for $15," said Grady Saunders, owner of eight Heritage Coffee establishments and the Wild Spice restaurant, not far from the Capitol.
The Legislature began the session already under fire after FBI agents investigating corruption served search warrants at the offices of six legislators last August. Four former or current lawmakers have been charged with bribery.
Senators and representatives responded by passing new ethics rules, including the meal reporting requirement. Now, any time a registered lobbyist spends more than $15 on food or drink for a legislator or legislative staffer at a single sitting, he'll have to include an account of it on a monthly report to the Alaska Public Offices Commission.
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Rep. Beth Kerttula, D-Juneau, said she knows the rules won't make a legislator honest but is simply "a ban on the kinds of things that violate the public trust."
Baranof Hotel's Gerd Krause said the rule is likely to hurt business in his dining room, a popular hangout for the Capitol crowd.
"It will affect us," Krause said. "How, I don't know. We all know for sure it won't be as busy as it used to be."
The way it used to be wasn't always good, said Sen. Gene Therriault, R-North Pole. He said he's heard of competition among legislators to see who could go the longest without buying themselves a meal.
Legislators went back and forth on the reporting limit.
In the Senate Finance Committee, Co-chairman Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, pushed for the limit to be raised to $50, "which would cover a reasonable meal, nothing too elaborate."
Sen. Donny Olson, D-Nome, said even a hamburger in his bush district could top the limit.
"Maybe not a $50 hamburger, but you'd be approaching it pretty quickly," he said.
Both Stedman and Olson are members of the Senate Finance Committee. They joined with others to outvote Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, by 5-1 and raise the reporting limit from $10 to $50.
On the Senate floor, however, Elton prevailed, and the limit was dropped to $15.
"I think it is absolutely imperative to have a low limit," he said, to ensure the transparency the public demands.
Baranof's Krause agreed with Stedman about the price of dining, however, and said his menu had few options to stay below $15.
"Not very much, maybe an appetizer, soup or salad," he said.
Heritage Coffee's Saunders said while Wild Spice might be too expensive for a lobbyist not wanting to have to disclose who they're wooing, there were other options available.
"The quickest way around that is to have a latte and a muffin at any one of our locations," he said.
Krause said crucial legislative session business was already down as lawmakers shied away from being seen with the lobbyists who'd previously plied them with expensive dinners.
"This year was a very scary year for a lot of people," he said. "This year was already much less than last year."
The ethics bill containing the meal reporting limits sailed over its remaining hurdles and is expected to be signed by the governor.
"Everything is more transparent now, the times are changing," Krause said.
Pat Forgey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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