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There is such a thing as a free lunch ... for Minnesota lawmakers

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The Star Tribune reports that a new law now allows Minnesota state legislators and their staffers to accept meals and drinks at events hosted by special interest groups – just as long as all 201 lawmakers are invited.

The law amounts to a loosening of a 19-year-old gift ban designed to lessen the influence of lobbyists on lawmakers. The state has had one of the strictest gift bans in the nation, and it still bans gifts to lawmakers in smaller events. (The National Conference of State Legislatures compares rules in the 50 states.)

But the easing of the rules could help improve relations between the parties and lead to more bipartisan collegiality, its advocates say. “The whole genesis was the idea that you can’t really work together until you play together, from the standpoint of getting to know each other and becoming social acquaintances,” bill proposer Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, told the Star Tribune.

Critics say the new law gives lobbyists unfair influence. “Most of my constituents don’t have people offering them fancy meals,” said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, told the Star Tribune.

Do gifts, even relatively modest dinners and drinks, buy influence? Opinions vary. "There is a lot of good sociological evidence that suggests gift-giving develops friends and relationships," Hamline University law professor and government ethics expert David Schultz told the Post Bulletin earlier this year when the law was approved. "I call it the Santa Claus syndrome. Everybody loves Santa Claus. Why? Because Santa Claus gives us presents."

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