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Statehouse beat: Free lunches a growing trend

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In the bizarre House floor debate over the Feed to Achieve bill, some Republicans, led by Delegate Ray Canterbury, R-Greenbrier, argued that giving free lunches to schoolchildren would cripple their work ethic. Delegate Jeff Eldridge, D-Lincoln, countered with what might have been the best line of the 2013 legislative session, telling colleagues: "If you haven't taken a free lunch while you've been here the last 59 days, then vote red."

Eldridge was making a point about the hypocrisy of legislators declaring "there is no such thing as a free lunch," when in fact, they had enjoyed free lunches for the entirety of the session.

As the January-April lobbyists' expenditures disclosures roll into the state Ethics Commission office, they show that Eldridge was not exaggerating.

The free lunches got off to an early start Jan. 7, with a retirement luncheon for Senate clerk Darrell Holmes, which drew 110 legislators and state officials, at a cost of $2,700. A total of 27 key lobbyists each kicked in $100 to cover the tab for the luncheon, catered by Wellington's.

United Transportation Union lobbyist Mark Mewshaw racked up $3,008 in expenses hosting lunches for the Senate Judiciary Committee (March 13), House Judiciary Committee (March 19), and for House members in the Government Organization Committee room, March 13, that alone cost $2,300.

Likewise, Don Michael with the West Virginia Farm Bureau, spent $1,478 hosting lunches for members of the House Rural Caucus on Feb. 21, March 14, March 21, and April 11.

Charlie Burd with the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia spent $954 for last-day-of-session spreads for the House of Delegates' east wing offices, and the House minority offices.

Super-lobbyist Paul Hardesty also pitched in for last-day spreads in the House and Senate Finance committees, and in the House speaker's office, at a cost of $726.

He also sponsored lunches for the House Finance Committee (April 4, $114), the House Ladies' Caucus (March 12, $575) and for House members March 13 ($409) and April 11 ($335).

Lobbyist-hosted lunches at the Capitol has been a growing trend because a. It's cheaper than receptions or dinners, and b. It assures a captive audience of legislators in an era when more health- and weight-conscious legislators are cutting back on the number of receptions they attend.

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That's not to say receptions are a thing of the past, with the biggest among the initial lobbyist disclosures being the IOGA reception at the Marriott Feb. 20, which cost $40,316.

The West Virginia Association for Justice (formerly known as the trial lawyers association) reception at Embassy Suites on Feb. 14 ran $14,529, while the West Virginia Farm Bureau reception March 5 at the Ramada was $11,200.

The West Virginia Directors of Senior Programs reception Feb. 27 at Embassy Suites was $7,772; the Corridor G Regional Development Authority reception there on March 7 cost $8,333.

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Meanwhile, a number of lobbyists chipped in to underwrite the costs of the annual Senate President's Dinner, March 27 at the Marriott, and the House Speaker's Dinner, March 26 at the University of Charleston.

Among disclosures for the latter was the itemized bill from UC catering, which included $3,352 for dinner (52 herb-roasted chicken dinners, 50 London broils, and seven "vegetarian Wellington" dinners), and a bar tab totaling $2,403.

That included $600 for pre-dinner cocktails, $195 for 60 domestic beers, $486 for 27 bottles of wine, and $67.50 for 18 imported beers.

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Nine lobbyists, including Hardesty, Rob Casto, Chad Robinson, Richard Stevens, Tom Susman and Jason Webb kicked in $100 each for a cash-bar end-of-the-session party April 14 at Aladdin's Restaurant.

That's a far cry from the raucous, all-night end-of-session affairs at the Marriott (which actually ended with a lavish breakfast), which met their demise after the Legislature toughened state Ethics laws in 2005 to require first-dollar reporting of expenditures by lobbyists.

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Nice gesture, at a small cost: West Virginia Education Association President Dale Lee reported spending $61.80 to bring pastries for House staffers April 4, and governor's office staffers March 20, April 1, and April 11.

(More next week, with the deadline for filing the disclosures coming up on Wednesday, with about half the reports pending, including several from big-spending lobbyists ...)

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Finally, I was surprised and gratified by the amount of interest in my recent "bucket list" cross-country rail excursion.

Surprised a little in that many people said they have similar trips on their wish lists, and surprised a lot by the large number of people who had never been on a train before, and had basic questions such as, "Where do you sleep?" and "What's the food like?"

I'm hoping to put together a little travel piece in the near future ... if I can boil it down to 1,000 words or so.

Reach Phil Kabler at philk@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1220.


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