A Washington state ethics board voted Tuesday that some lawmakers can receive free tickets to the U.S. Open golf tournament without violating state rules limiting gifts to legislators.
The board, with its unanimous support, agreed that the $110 tickets are acceptable exemptions to state rules that cap gifts to a $50 value.
Ethics panel officials said the advisory request from Pierce County made it clear that lawmakers won't be at the tournament primarily as spectators. Instead, they will learn about developments to the site of the tournament expected to draw more than 200,000 visitors.
Lawmakers will be able to choose one of two three-hour tours that the county is organizing during the June tournament at Chambers Bay Golf Course.
"Our intent is to talk to them about this site and this event and how we go forward," Al Rose, an attorney from the county executive's office, said. "It's not to come and watch the U.S Open and have unlimited access. We have real business we want to transact."
After the hearing, Rose said that as an added safeguard county officials plan to speak with the state's Public Disclosure Commission before issuing invitations. Rose said it's likely that more than 20 lawmakers will be invited and possibly the governor, as well.
The issue of free tickets to a sporting event has come up before, ethics board attorney Mike O'Connell noted. The panel has ruled previously that lawmakers can't accept such gifts without a business or work interest. "You have to do something more than just attend the game," O'Connell said during the hearing.
In this case, he said, a detailed agenda shows there will be legitimate discussions of legislative business, though lawmakers will have time to watch some of the tournament.
Around the nation, laws vary on what gifts are acceptable.
Ten states ban gifts to lawmakers, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Washington state is among 30 others that put a monetary limit on acceptable gifts. Another 10 have no limits.
NCSL spokeswoman Natalie O'Donnell Wood said there are exemptions even in states that ban or limit gifts.
The ethics board will affirm the vote with a written ruling soon, and the move comes after a recent decision took effect last month allowing in Washington state to accept no more than 12 free meals each year. The change came after The Associated Press and a consortium of public radio stations found that the state's 50 most active lobbyists spent $65,000 on meals for lawmakers in the first four months of 2013.
The issue of free tickets to sporting events comes up occasionally. In Oklahoma, lawmakers get a pair of tickets to games between the state's major college football programs. They can get passes to concerts or NBA games, but must report them. In Nebraska, legislators get free season tickets to University of Nebraska football games, paid for by the school. Texas also allows lawmakers to accept tickets to college football games.
Missouri senators last week defeated a proposal that would have banned lawmakers from accepting free sports or music tickets during a debate on a broader bill on state ethics laws. And last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed a bill that would have banned gifts, including sports tickets and Disneyland tickets.