Gifts of Hospitality

By Natalie O'Donnell Wood | Vol . 22, No. 21 / June 2014

NCSL NewsDid you know?

  • At least 15 states specify that legislators can accept various forms of hospitality if they are attending meetings of membership-based organizations.
  • Terms such as “widely attended,” “infrequent occasion” and “modest items” can make a difference when interpreting which gifts of hospitality are permitted.
  • Kentucky and Virginia amended their gift laws in 2014. Kentucky now prohibits nearly all gifts of food and beverage from lobbyists and Virginia created the category of “intangible gift,” which permits certain gifts of hospitality.

When it comes to gifts, legislators must be aware of what they cannot receive, lobbyists must be aware of what they cannot give, and both must be aware of what they must disclose. When lobbyists entertain legislators, are they giving gifts in the traditional sense of the word, or is it a legitimate way to forge connections? State laws, rules and policies give guidance. But even the most seemingly clear-cut provision can be accompanied by extenuating circumstances that allow for certain kinds of gift giving and receiving. These exceptions frequently relate to hospitality.

What is hospitality? The Oxford Dictionary’s basic definition of hospitality suits the social interplay between legislators and lobbyists: “the friendly and generous reception and entertainment of guests, visitors or strangers.” The late Professor Alan Rosenthal, an expert in ethics and state legislatures, understood why hospitality has evolved into a crucial part of legislative interactions. “It allows legislators and lobbyists to establish bonds that are not directly related to the issue or issues in context. From the lobbyist’s point of view, socializing pays off in relationship building,” he wrote. But, he argued, for most legislators, such socializing is work.

News articles and public opinion polls reveal a skeptical media and citizenry when it comes to relationship building. These groups argue that entertaining creates the perception that lobbyists gain unfair advantages in the legislative process, it limits ordinary citizens’ access to legislators, and it spurs the formation of cozy friendships where quid-pro-quo situations can thrive.

Enter carefully constructed laws and rules on the acceptance of gifts of hospitality. The term hospitality means different things in different states, but mainly regulation occurs in three areas: gifts of food and beverage; gifts of complimentary attendance, travel and lodging at meetings; and gifts of entertainment.

State Action

Most states spell out acceptable or unacceptable gifts of hospitality in the definitions or exemptions of gift laws or rules. In addition, states such as Massachusetts and Rhode Island have delegated the authority to delineate appropriate acceptance criteria to ethics commissions or legislative committees.

Gifts of food and beverage. Almost every state allows legislators to consume food and beverages in certain situations. The most common allowances center around a legislator’s reason for attending the event or who else is invited. At least 16 states permit public officials to accept food and beverages when they are acting in an official capacity, speaking, or if the event educates or provides information relevant to legislative service. Nearly a quarter of states permit legislators to consume food and beverages when all members of the body, chamber—or in some cases, caucuses or committees—are invited to an event. Twelve states allow for gifts of food and beverage as long as the monetary threshold on gifts is not violated.

Alaska, Illinois, Michigan, Mississippi, Nebraska, North Carolina and Washington have provisions that allow meals if they are immediately consumed. Connecticut and Maryland allow them if eaten in the presence of the person providing the meal. Alaska legislators can consume food that is “indigenous to the state” and Georgia legislators are allowed food and beverage produced in the state.

Food and beverage exemptions are not cut and dried, even in states with very restrictive gift laws. The examples range from Colorado, which allows consumption only if a legislator speaks at a non-lobbyist sponsored meeting, to Wisconsin, which allows it if the legislator is speaking about state issues or pays the fair market cost of the meal.

Meeting attendance and related costs. Gifts of hospitality at meetings are sometimes allowed. In addition to exempting food, beverages and meals, states specify when travel, lodging and complimentary attendance are acceptable gifts. Statutes in at least 15 states allow the acceptance of travel, lodging and other meeting-related expenses outright. Legislators in 12 states can have meeting-related travel and/ or lodging costs reimbursed if their attendance is related to legislative duties. Others allow the costs to be paid for if a legislator is a speaker or is participating in the meeting. Kentucky, Louisiana, Nebraska, New Jersey and New York permit legislators to receive gifts of travel, lodging and other meeting costs if the meeting occurs within state borders.

Entertainment. Gifts of entertainment, such as tickets to sporting events, are more likely to be banned, though exceptions exist. Admission to charity events is specifically allowed in 10 states.

Legislators in Arizona, Maryland, Oregon and Texas can accept an entertainment-related gift if it is incidental to a meeting or conference in which they are participating. In Iowa and South Carolina, entertainment is permissible if all members of a body are invited to attend. In Oklahoma, legislators are allowed to accept tickets to the Speaker’s Ball, although legislation passed this year will prohibit it in 2015 and beyond.

The absence of gift laws can erode ethical values of trust, transparency and fairness. But common sense and practicality are important legislative values. Hospitality-related exceptions for gifts are the result of the tug between these two sets of principles. And convening in groups will always be a part of the legislative process, no matter the limits placed on the gathering. Legislators must take care to follow the law, but as Rosenthal argued, “If legislators happen to enjoy themselves on the occasion, so be it. They will probably suffer on enough other occasions to make up for the enjoyment.”

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