Free lunches at the Statehouse – served up two or three times a week on average by organizations hoping to curry favor with the Legislature – have become so popular that leaders from both parties say it’s time to limit their use as a lobbying tactic.

“It’s increased four-fold,” in recent years, said Rep. Robert Duplessie, D-Westbrook, a four-term legislator who serves as majority whip in the House. “It’s happening way too often.”

House Minority Leader David Bowles, R-Sanford, agreed. “I’m troubled by the extent of the lunches,” he said. “We’re looking at limiting it to coffee and donuts, a few pastries, and not what literally has become full meals.”

The issues, now being discussed by the Legislative Council made up of leadership from both parties, range from what some describe as the “chaos” created by the lunches to appropriateness of feeding legislators free food when they get $32 a day for meals when the Legislature is in session.

Last Thursday, legislators from both parties and a fair number of Statehouse staff stood in a long line snaking through the second-floor Hall of Flags – where all the lunches are served – to partake in a twofer: breakfast and lunch served that day by FAME, the Finance Authority of Maine.

The day before, Equality Maine served lunch; the day before that breakfast was served by the Primary Care Association; and, the week started off with breakfast and lunch on Monday, sponsored by the Elder Issues Partnership.

FAME, some said, falls into the more acceptable range because it is a quasi-state agency and the food they serve is a cut above – sandwiches in wraps instead of bulky rolls, and pasta and green salads.

Cindy Trepanier, the communications coordinator for FAME, said it was the third or fourth lunch the organization had hosted for legislators, reaching out to them in the first year of their two-year terms.

“It’s just good to have a one-on-one” with legislators, she said, admitting that it’s probably “50-50” in terms of the legislators who actually visit information tables and talk to FAME staff compared to those who just grab their food and run.

FAME estimated the cost to put on a combined breakfast and lunch for 400 people – enough for 186 legislators, some state staff and any visitors that wander through – at $10 to $12 per head, or $4,000 to $4,800.

Drawing the line

While nobody thinks a free tuna fish sandwich can buy a legislator’s vote, there is a question of “appropriateness” when it comes to the meals, said Sen. Ken Gagnon, D-Kennebec, who chairs the Legislative Council’s facilities committee that ultimately will recommend a free lunch policy.

Aside from the per diem issue, lobbyists have literally taken over the Hall of Flags, which is supposed to be available to legislators and the governor for press conferences and award ceremonies.

“That is legislative space,” he said, but it’s tough to call an impromptu press conference when there are rows of lunch tables set up. Organizations request the space as much as six months or more in advance, and some already have reserved for next year.

Security is another issue. “Ryder trucks with big-box coolers,” are pulling up next to the Statehouse and boxes and coolers are being carried in without being scrutinized, he said.

“We certainly don’t do an FBI check on these people,” Gagnon said, because the sense is nothing bad will happen. But, if it did, he said, “it would be almost negligent,” in hindsight, to give so many groups access without a stronger security system in place.

A third issue is competition with the cafeteria and cafA?© the state contracts with to operate in the Statehouse and connecting office building.

“Every time a meal is served on the second floor, they take a major hit that day” in terms of sales, Gagnon said.

Rep. Bowles also expressed concern about competing with the statehouse food services. “These people rely on us for their livelihood,” he said, and the free lunches not only attract legislators, but state employees. And, the legislators are given the per diem to pay for their lunches.

“There’s something wrong with receiving free lunches and getting a per diem,” he said.

Legislators react

“There is no such thing as a free lunch,” quipped Rep. Charles Crosby, D-Topsham, a freshman legislator, who said, “unless you come eat and take off,” you get a good dose of lobbying as part of the deal.

Legislators get paid $20,000 for a two-year term, running from December to mid-June in the first year and January to mid-April in the second. They also receive a food and travel per diem of $70 a day, including $32 for meals and $38 a day for either miles or lodging, when they are in session. The expense budget is about $1.2 million annually.

Rep. Harold Clough, R-Scarborough, said he takes part in the lunches served by lobbyists because it’s a change. “I carry my lunch most days.”

“Is there a politician around that doesn’t like a free lunch?” said freshman Rep. George Bishop, R-Boothbay, poking fun at himself. As a newcomer, Bishop said the lunches do provide “an opportunity for education.”

Rep. Chris Barstow, D-Gorham, said the free food, “has no influence on my vote or the decisions I make. If it’s an organization I’m vehemently against, I won’t partake in the meal.”

Rep. James Schatz, D-Blue Hill, skipped the FAME lunch last week, saying he wanted some quiet time. “I don’t enjoy standing up and eating in a crowd,” he said.

The freshman legislator said he was surprised at first by all the free food and a little alarmed because he had managed to lose weight before the session started. Most of what’s served, he said, “is not on my diet.”