What others say: No free lunch

  • Wednesday, May 4, 2016 3:42pm
  • Opinion

During the mid-1900s, Texas lobbyists kept their state legislators in line with the “Three Bs” — bourbon, beefsteak and blondes.

We’d like to believe Alaska’s political life has advanced beyond the use of “Bs,” — or Cs, Ds, and X, Y, Zs, for that matter — but we’re not that naive.

One only has to look at the immense stacks of money that municipalities, companies, unions and other entities throw at lobbyists every year to understand that this remains a key mechanism for access to and influence on Alaska’s political machine. The gravy train keeps chugging away, slowed somewhat by state regulations and codes of ethics, and apparently not at all by the state’s massive budget deficit.

We’re not shocked by the Alaska Dispatch News story on Wednesday about lobbyists paying $107 for Senate President Kevin Meyers’ dinner and drinks on March 24, nor by the $75 that the lobbyists chipped in for Meyer’s chief of staff, or even the $190 they paid for the chow of two other Senate aides.

Really, who among us hasn’t had a $372 dinner paid for by casual acquaintances?

What is stunning is Meyer’s tone-deaf obliviousness to the impact that public disclosure of such a meal would have on the reputations of himself and the institution of which he serves as leader.

The lobbyists who picked up Meyer’s tab represent the developers of the now infamous Legislative Information Office in Anchorage. One week after the dinner, Meyers cast a vote in favor of spending $32.5 million to buy the building from those developers.

Meyer said he can’t remember the specifics of the dinner conversation, but that the free dinner didn’t affect his LIO decision — and that looking at his dinners (note the plural) and votes would show no correlation, according to the ADN story.

OK, Sen. Meyer. We’ll take you at your word. Lobbyists who pick up your tabs are nice but silly people who should know better than to expect anything in return. They probably buy meals for lots of regular, non-government people, too.

Sen. Meyer is well-placed to buy his own food and beverages, earning between $100,000 and $200,000 in 2015 working for ConocoPhillips in addition to $51,000 in legislative pay and the daily $213 per diem that legislators receive while working in Juneau, according to the ADN story.

Here’s an excerpt from the ADN story.

“Asked why he couldn’t pay for his own meals,” Meyer responded: ‘We could.’

‘I don’t know if that’s common practice — maybe some of the legislators do,’ he said.”

It doesn’t sound like common practice for Meyer, who also gives the impression that he’s not the only legislator who enjoys a free lunch now and again.

So, what’s the big deal? So what if kindly lobbyists beat the Senate president or any other legislator to the dinner check?

The biggest damage is to credibility of the legislator — and by association, the Legislature — involved.

Public perception follows the basic human truth that, ultimately (and as noted in one of Ray Troll’s great artworks), “Nullum Gratuitum Prandium.” There is no free lunch.

Despite legislators’ protestations to the contrary, today’s freebies create a chit that someone expects to collect somewhere, somehow, down the road. It’s all return on investment. Most folks don’t appreciate their legislators racking up that kind of debt.

Also, most folks have a sharp eye for hypocrisy.

Meyer and other legislators have talked an awful lot about budget cuts and fiscal pain ahead. A lot of other Alaskans are hurting already from previous cuts and economic contractions now underway. Stories like this strongly suggest that the pain isn’t likely to reach Meyer and some of his legislative colleagues. As long as they’re in positions of power, someone will be willing to pick up their tabs. And not small tabs from the burger joint down the street. Tabs at places where dinner and drinks for one person can climb over $100.

This isn’t a partisan issue. It’s an issue of credibility and leadership.

We’re left wondering where all of the leaders who are willing to turn down the Bs, lead by example and work to solve the problems of this state have gone.

— Ketchikan Daily News,

April 30

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