There is such a thing as a free lunch—or dinner and cocktails —for Minnesota legislators, thanks to a change in law that has loosened a nearly 20-year-old restriction on lobbyist gifts.

For the first time in 19 years, legislators and their staff will be allowed to eat and drink for free at receptions hosted by special interest groups, as long as all 201 legislators are invited at least five days in advance.

The change is the first real crack in the so-called gift ban, designed to prevent lobbyists and special interest groups from giving legislators anything of value — including meals — unless they’re giving a speech or taking questions.

Backers of the new law say the easing of what once was one of the strictest gift bans in the nation was needed as a way to restore camaraderie in an increasingly polarized Legislature. The law still prohibits lawmakers from accepting freebies in more exclusive gatherings.

“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,” said Sen. Dave Senjem, R-Rochester, who proposed the bill. “It was an attempt to break down partisanship a bit, albeit small, but to put a little dent in this thing that has seemingly created so much separation in the Legislature.”

Critics say the change is a step backward that further separates lawmakers from the people they represent, and makes them more susceptible to influence.

“Most of my constituents don’t have people offering them fancy meals,” said Sen. John Marty, DFL-Roseville, the original author of the gift ban, who continues to staunchly oppose lobbyist attempts to woo legislators.

“Is it the end of the world?” Marty said. “No, but I think most people understand the reality that money talks in politics and big money is driving our campaigns. It’s one more way that interest groups and lobbyists try to curry favor.”

Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, opposed the bill on the floor last May, rebuffing the suggestion that it was about unity.

“We’ve seen too many times, this isn’t about partisanship,” she said. “This is about people buying an audience with us and ... giving us free stuff so we’re more inclined to listening to their pitch, and that’s where the danger comes.”

Neither support nor opposition to the amendment has been bound by party. A vote for the amendment to the campaign finance bill passed 34-28 in the Senate with bipartisan support. Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk, DFL-Cook, backed it, as did Minority Leader David Hann, R-Eden Prairie.

‘I’m not thrilled with it’

In the House, support and opposition were similarly bipartisan.

“I’d say I’m not thrilled with it,” said Rep. Ryan Winkler, DFL-Golden Valley, who sponsored the House version of the campaign finance bill. He urged its passage despite disagreeing with the Senjem measure, which was presented toward the end of the 2013 session, while the House was in the midst of a historic vote to legalize gay marriage. Winkler said he has drafted a bill to repeal the provision in the 2014 session, but is uncertain whether it will go anywhere.

“It’s just another way for special interests to try to set the agenda,” Winkler said, “but I don’t know how much more leverage they could have than they do already.”

Winkler said he does not attend receptions because he lives in the Twin Cities. It’s different, he conceded, for lawmakers who can’t go home each night during the session, who previously would pay $5 or $10 for their meals.

“I think this is about people who go to parties vs. people who go home,” he said. “It’s party-line in that way.”

Dinner and drinks for that many lawmakers isn’t inexpensive, which would likely limit the number of Minnesota’s 1,354 associations represented by lobbyists that can host such gatherings.

Senjem said he already attended a reception held by the Minnesota Business Partnership, which in the past would have cost him $50 to attend.

He predicts attendance will increase at such events, where legislators are meeting members of the community. Charlie Weaver, executive director of the Minnesota Business Partnership, was unavailable for comment, a spokesman said.

Amber Backhaus, president of the Minnesota Governmental Relations Council, which represents the state’s lobbyists, said the organization takes no formal position on the new law, which she said they were unaware of until it came to the Senate floor.

Like Senjem, Backhaus said the new law will have a greater effect on bipartisanship, not influence.

“You hear a lot of stories about the fact that there was greater collegiality in the earlier days because it got outside the heat of the political debate and encouraged bipartisan relationships,” Backhaus said. “In that case, we do support a process that will have legislators see each other as people, but I guess that depends on whether the law is used and who comes to the events.”