For lawmakers, there's almost always a free lunch
LINCOLN - It's noon, and the Nebraska Legislature has adjourned for the morning.
As if a spigot had opened, a steady stream of state senators, staffers and lobbyists emerges from the west doors of the State Capitol.
Along 14th Street, below the watchful eyes of the statue of Abraham Lincoln, await cars, vans and SUVs - sometimes Greyhound-sized buses - to whisk away lawmakers to another lunchtime event.
The Legislature, as an old saying goes, "pays $12,000 a year and all you can eat."
And these days, even as other states move to ban free lunches for elected officials, the list of free breakfast, lunch and dinner meetings sponsored by lobbyists and trade associations is growing longer and longer.
An official "social calendar," kept by the clerk of the Legislature, lists 48 breakfasts, lunches and evening receptions or dinners during the 18 days lawmakers will be in session this month - and not all events are listed.
There are so many events, a senator could easily go without ever paying for a meal. The speaker of the Legislature last year began "marking off" a handful of mornings and one evening each month so that lawmakers have some free time.
"I want to make sure senators have time to get their work done and see their families to the extent that's possible," said the speaker, State Sen. Mike Flood of Norfolk.
The social events include coffee-and-doughnut breakfasts, wild-game luncheons, a "Bibs and Ribs" pork barbecue and multicourse meals at country clubs. The cost to put on these events ranges from about $150 to as much as $3,000.
Many feature speakers, panel discussions or presentations on issues. Some are designed for new senators, a specific committee or urban or rural senators.
Traditional lobbying groups such as bankers, accountants and farm groups are typical hosts, but the Winnebago Tribe, the City of Omaha and Gov. Dave Heineman also have their free luncheon affairs.
The number of such social events has been steadily rising over the past few years. Often two or three events are going on at the same time.
Observers and participants say the events have increased because of term limits, the desire of organizations to connect with 36 new senators elected in the past two elections and more groups trying to meet with lawmakers over a meal, particularly breakfast and lunch.
"I tried to go to four breakfasts (in one morning) once, and I almost vomited doing it," said former State Sen. Jim Cudaback of Riverdale. "After the 100th one, it really isn't a perk."
Some citizens and public interest groups dispute that.
While senators and lobbyists defend the endless stream of free meals as more informational than influential and a way to connect with constituents, critics decry the appearance of impropriety.
"They're holding these dinners for a reason. And they're not just doing it for fun," said Jack Gould, chairman of Common Cause Nebraska, a group that lobbies for stronger accountability standards for elected officials.
Senators receive a per diem of $39 (or $99 for those living more than 50 miles from the State Capitol) for expenses. Gould said he would support a pay raise for lawmakers if that meant no gifts from lobbyists.
Nationally, more states are enacting limits on lobbyists, with many adopting stricter limits on gifts and meals, said Natalie Wood of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Twenty-one states have toughened these rules in recent years. Six states have outright bans on providing even a free cup of coffee, Wood said.
Nebraska may be headed the other way. Legislative Bill 66, introduced by Sen. Kent Rogert of Tekamah, would, among other things, double the size of gifts that lobbyists could give to legislators and immediate family members, from $50 a month to $100.
Rogert's proposal would continue to exempt food and entertainment from the limits, an approach taken in many states.
Iowa has a strict $3 limit on food purchases for lawmakers. That forces them to buy their own meals and forces lobbyists to feature only nominal food items at their events.
"I don't see it as a negative," said veteran Iowa lobbyist Mike Triplett.
He said the fate of legislation in Iowa depends on "whoever has the best argument and not who has the best shrimp cocktail."
Nebraska senators and lobbyists defend the meals, saying they are a convenient and sociable way of acquainting legislators with issues and each other. Meetings that involve constituents coming to Lincoln are almost a must-attend, several lawmakers said.
"If a library director is going to drive 140 miles from Kearney to Lincoln, the (least) I can do is come and have lunch with them," said Sen. Galen Hadley of Kearney.
Hadley and some other first-year senators said they try to attend as many events as possible, though they've all heard of senators who gained up to 20 pounds a session because of the meals.
Rogert and several other senators said they saw nothing ethically wrong with taking a free lunch.
"If you work for a company and you're out in the field, you're buying a lunch every single day," Rogert said. "Lunches are the place to do business worldwide."
Some lawmakers say they have tried to cut back. Omaha lawmakers with young children, such as Sens. Beau McCoy and Pete Pirsch, say they have less time to attend the breakfasts and late-night dinners.
There's just not enough time to attend all the events, said Sen. Tanya Cook of Omaha. "I've got to pace myself to get through the 90 days" of the legislative session, Cook said.
Another freshman lawmaker, Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, said she's cut way back on meal events, asking constituents and lobbyists to bring a brown-bag lunch to her office if they want a noon meeting.
"I was warned," she said. "You could be gone every morning, noon and night at some event."
At least one former senator, Ernie Chambers of Omaha, refused to attend the free events. Today, some lobbyists complain that fewer senators are showing up and that with so many competing events, it's hard to schedule their own.
On Thursday, only four senators and one senator's aide attended a pizza-and-pop lunch sponsored by the Nebraska Water Resources Association for urban lawmakers.
The lawmakers, and 16 lobbyists or farm group representatives, hurriedly ate while watching a PowerPoint presentation on the meaning of "fully appropriated" in terms of groundwater pumping.
By contrast, the Nebraska Bankers Association hosted a Wednesday evening reception at the Cornhusker Hotel with drinks and heavy hors d'oeuvres that attracted about 35 senators and about 60 bankers.
Sen. John Nelson of Omaha said he attended an "aggie" breakfast hosted by the Nebraska Farm Bureau last week to catch up on rural issues. (His family still owns a farm in Fillmore County.)
Nelson, a member of the Appropriations Committee, said it's hard to network with other senators when you're involved in the all-day hearings of the budget-writing committee. Seventeen senators attended the Farm Bureau breakfast.
Stories about gaining weight during a legislative session are commonplace, as are tales about the old days.
The "lobby room" at a downtown Lincoln club once featured free drinks for senators every night. That tradition ended decades ago, although lobbyist Walt Radcliffe still sponsors a free drink night, Thursdays, at the Nebraska Club for legislative staffers.
Sen. Russ Karpisek of Wilber was among those who said the free-meal events are misunderstood and overblown. Almost everyone has a "special interest" that has an organization that sponsors such events, Karpisek said.
"It's one of those things that the public gets all worked up about," he said, "but they don't realize they're a part of it."
Date: 2/22/2009 12:00:00 AM
Office: Common Cause Nebraska