Traverse City Record-Eagle

December 12, 2013

Another View: Gift ban change seems unfair

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — There appears to be a crack in the restrictive legislation that bars Minnesota legislators from getting a free lunch in fears that a ballpoint pen may sway a vote.

The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune reported ... that legislators and staff will now be allowed to eat and drink without being charged at receptions hosted by special interest groups — as long as all 201 legislators are invited at least five days in advance.

The “gift ban” — with variations throughout the United States - was designed to prevent lobbyists and “special interest” groups from bribing legislators with things of value.

Minnesota has one of the toughest bans — although we’re unsure why legislators feel they need to impose the toughest restrictions given the scant history of legislative bribery in the state

Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, proposed a revision bill as “an attempt to break down partisanship a bit” and get to “know each other and become social acquaintances.” Apparently legislators need food to become more social.

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, opposed the bill on the floor last May saying “This isn’t about partisanship. This is about people buying an audience with us and ... giving us free stuff so we’re more inclined to listening to their pitch, and that’s where the danger comes.”

Unfortunately, this weakening of the law just sets the table better for well-heeled lobbyists and still restricts access from smaller organizations. Once you invite 201 legislators for dinner and drinks, it gets pretty expensive. And only those with deep pockets will be able to afford such access.

Senjem reported saying he attended a reception in which the dinner would have cost him $50 to attend. If all legislators attended, that’s a dinner tab over $10,000 just for the lawmakers. A small-town chamber of commerce can’t afford such largesse but a large corporation surely could.

Unless we have a great fear that legislators we elect are more prone to influence than others in the nation, we should be looking to open up access rather than limit it. In Michigan, for instance, the exception is for “A breakfast, luncheon, dinner, or other refreshment consisting of food and beverage provided for immediate consumption.”

Indiana has opted for full disclosure rather than restrictions, making lobbyists detail to the state the description of the gift, its value and who received it — including meals and drink.

Many states just peg a dollar amount ranging from $10 a month to $300 a year with restrictions.

Clearly, this easing of the restriction in Minnesota will have the opposite effect of curbing influence from powerful lobbyists. We need a complete review of our gift ban that has some common sense behind it.

If a legislator can be bought for a chicken sandwich and a coffee, we either have really crooked legislators or we don’t pay them enough.

The Mankato Free Press