There's still free chow for legislators (and you, too)

Excerpted from Scott Mooneyham, editor of the insider newsletter in Raleigh:

Restaurants occasionally offer coupons for free meals to dedicated patrons. But at the North Carolina General Assembly, any citizen, on most evenings when legislators are in town, can grab a free meal with five simple words: “Isn't this a public event?”

This isn't a joke. The recipe for you to partake of a nice shrimp cocktail or some other delicious finger food lies in those five little words. …

Awaiting is a lavish reception being thrown by the homebuilders, or the bankers, or some lobbying firm. Soon enough, you'll be grabbing a little plate and loading up. If anyone looks at you funny, or challenges your presence, just whack 'em with your big rhetorical stick. “Isn't this a public event?”

Don't be surprised if they shrink against the nearest wall, whispering and gesturing to some important-looking people. Don't worry. Continue your grub fest. They probably won't bother you.

The power of those words comes from the state ethics law passed two years ago, meant to prevent lobbyists from wining and dining legislators.

The law has stopped the intimate gatherings at swanky steakhouses. But lobbying groups continue to ply legislators with food and drink at broadly attended receptions. They've been able to do so because of an exception to the law that allows legislators to continue partaking as long as these receptions are a “public event.”

The exception may have been needed. Why should a legislator be excluded from an event that any other member of the public might attend, regardless of who's picking up the tab?

But there's a bit more to the law. The definition includes not just events that are open to the entire public (that would be too logical), but also those in which broad groups of legislators are invited exclusively and the host meets a few other conditions.

But why sweat the details? By the time the host group has read up on the law and figured out if they can legally kick you out, you'll probably have a belly full anyway. …