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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

The Influence Game: Wining And Dining Washington Lawmakers After Hours

In the first three months of this year, lobbyists in Washington state spent more than $200,000 on entertainment. Much of that money was spent to wine and dine state lawmakers during the just-concluded 105-day session. But what are lobbyists and their clients getting in exchange for picking up the tab?

After the legislative day ends up at the Capitol, it’s pretty common for some of the players to decamp. They go to one of a handful of usually higher-end Olympia establishments. This is where – over a meal, perhaps a bottle of Washington wine – the work continues.

Steve Gano is a veteran business lobbyist with clients like Wal-Mart, MillerCoors beers and AT&T. From January through March of this year he spent more than $6,000 on entertainment. That’s according to reports he files with Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission. That puts Gano in the top 10 of lobbyist entertainers.

So what’s the value of breaking bread with a lawmaker? Gano turned the question back on me.

“What was the first event you took your wife on?" he asked.

“A dinner date,” I replied.

“You went on a dinner date. And you did that because you wanted to get together to know each other. I’m not suggesting I’m going to propose to any of these folks.”

But Gano says a meal together is a way to learn about each other’s backgrounds -- like a date.

Ultimately that helps in what he calls the “communications process.” I should mention Gano works with his wife and they own a house right across the street from the Capitol campus. Instead of taking lawmakers out to dinner they often host at their home. In fact, recently, Gano and his wife held an open house after a key legislative deadline.

Raising taxes or raising a glass?

Among those who dropped by was House Public Safety chairman Roger Goodman, a Democrat.

“It was a lovely spring late afternoon on the deck of the house of our more prominent lobbyists and they were serving a lot of Coors-Miller products,” Goodman recalled.

There was even a representative of the company in attendance. Now one of the big controversies in the legislature this year was whether to continue an expiring beer tax. Gano was lobbying against it. Another big topic: drunk driving. In fact, Representative Goodman has been leading the charge to crackdown on repeat drunk drivers.

So imagine the picture: the chair of the House Public Safety Committee standing on the porch of the house of the beer lobbyist holding a beer. Is that a problem?

“Personally, I am not persuaded one way or the other by being wined and dined or given my favorite bottle of beer," Goodman said. "The way I operate is I look at each issue and each person one at a time independent from one another. So, I was perfectly willing to drink a Coors product and still favor increasing beer taxes.”

Goodman adds there are actually studies that make a connection between higher beer taxes and fewer DUI fatalities. Nonetheless, one week after the open house, Washington House Democrats abandoned their proposal to extend the beer tax.

I asked Gano whether there was any connection to the fact that the beer tax fell out of their tax package a week after the event at his house.

“No," he said. "If it was that simple to offer someone a beer to kill the beer tax we would have done it a long time ago.”

In fact, Democrats faced a barrage of opposition not only from big beer makers, but also from local microbrewers and beer distributors. Everyone I talked to, not surprisingly, said there is no quid pro quo: meals -- or beers -- don’t buy votes.

Building relationships

But I was also repeatedly reminded that politics is about relationships.

Another longtime lobbyist who also entertains lawmakers is Michael Temple, who has been involved with the legislature since 1979. Temple is best known for lobbying on behalf of Washington’s trial lawyers. He says he works incredibly complex issues like workers compensation. So, Temple likes to schedule dinners where he can have a more detailed and nuanced conversation. Reports show in the first three months of this year he spent nearly $2,600 on entertainment.

This is the question: how do meals out affect what happens up at the Capitol? Temple gives this example. He takes a lawmaker or two to dinner.

“So then, a week from now all of a sudden an amendment comes up in a committee and they’re walking into a committee hearing," he says. "And you now only have three minutes to walk with them between one hearing room and the next. It makes it much easier for them to understand that they can trust the information you’re providing them.”

'An unfair advantage'

This is exactly what troubles Mary Boyle with the watchdog group Common Cause in Washington, DC.

“We would see it as kind of an unfair advantage that lobbyists have over ordinary members of the public.”

In an ideal world Boyle says lawmakers would pay for their own dinners. Washington legislators are entitled to $90 a day in per diem when they’re in session. And some do split the check.

So here’s the big picture. It’s not uncommon for Washington lobbyists to spend more than $500,000 on entertainment in a year. It’s not every lobbyist. It’s not every lawmaker. But it breaks down to an average of more than $3,000 per legislator.

On the Web:

Lobbyist expenses and compensation - Washington Public Disclosure Commission 

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."