Separate checks, Mr. Lobbyist

By FRANK GERJEVICMay 31, 2012 

News that the oil industry had spent more than $1 million to influence Alaska lawmakers in the oil tax debate comes as no surprise. Its news value is in the numbers, which always need to be public information.

More such spending is coming in both this year's election, when the industry will no doubt try to change the makeup of the state Senate, and next January when the Legislature convenes again.

But one number stood out in the story about industry spending. It was that $3,120 spent by the Alaska Oil and Gas Association for dinner at a Washington, D.C., restaurant popular with movers and shakers -- and owned by several of them. Alaska lawmakers dined at least once on the industry dime during "Energy Break," the annual meeting of the Energy Council that puts the Alaska Legislature mostly on hold for a week during March.

In one of his newsletters a few years back, Rep. Mike Doogan wrote about changing the culture in Juneau. Instead of quibbling over where to draw the line over lunch and dinner -- report a lobbyist-paid meal over $15? $50? -- just don't accept meals and gifts from lobbyists or any interest group.

Now that would be something, if our lawmakers simply said, "We pay our own way," whether it's seven courses or a small coffee. Hear your pitch over dinner? All right. But, waiter, that'll be separate checks. And because lawmaking doesn't pay like lobbying, we may have to do a lot of brown-bagging. Sorry, no wine cellar at Subway.

Granted, this could be awkward at times. When our dozen or so lawmakers showed up at the industry's Energy Council Dinner in D.C. in March, they might have had to slip the cost of dinner into a discreetly placed box marked for legislators to cover their share of the meal and the share for spouses or guests. No doubt some on both the industry and lawmaking sides would roll their eyes and laugh -- as if a meal like this bought anything.

But lawmakers' constituents wouldn't laugh. They'd see a tangible sign of independence, stronger for being unwritten, and they'd appreciate it.

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