There is nothing like a crisis of confidence to get politicians moving forcefully on an issue. Such is the case with campaign finance legislation in Annapolis. The situation had been allowed to fester for years, growing so severe that top legislative leaders said they finally acted because of "the perception that democracy has been corrupted by special interests."
That's pretty strong language. But then the overt effort by certain lobbyists to gain special favors from lawmakers has been pretty egregious. Delegates and senators are showered with free meals, presents, gifts and huge amounts of campaign contributions by lobbyists and Political Action Committees -- over $3 million in the 1990 election. In exchange, special interests get what they want from lawmakers. Or as Del. Anne S. Perkins put it, PACs "have an unlimited ability to influence policy."
This dangerous trend has to be stopped. Now. No longer is the public willing to permit the kind of cozy relationship between legislators and lobbyists that has been all too obvious in the State House in recent years. Legislators have to send out a loud and clear message that the General Assembly is not for sale.
Lobbyists serve a useful purpose as conduits of information and advocacy. But some special-interest representatives have exceeded the bounds of propriety. That is why many PACs and lobbyists are supporting the reform package co-sponsored by House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. They realize that their good names are being dragged through the mud by their less honorable colleagues.
The Miller-Mitchell reform package would limit PAC contributions to $8,000, ban lobbyists from serving in fund-raising capacities for candidates or PACs and force a broad disclosure by lobbyists of all gifts, meals and presents to officials -- down to the name of the official, the specifics of the gratuity and the exact amount.
These proposals, if approved by the General Assembly, would clamp down on many of the current abuses. But lawmakers should go a step further and impose internal rules on themselves that mandate stricter reporting of all favors bestowed on them by lobbyists. If legislators want to regain the public's confidence, they have to make sure that their ethical houses are squeaky-clean. And they must do so before the General Assembly adjourns in April.