A state ethics panel has grounded "frequent flier"-style incentive programs used by Annapolis hotels to attract legislators' business.
The downtown hotels that cater to more than 100 lawmakers who live in Annapolis during the 90-day session offer discounts on merchandise,free stays at other hotels and even family vacations in Cancun to their best clients, said Del. Kenneth Montague, chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics.
"We're not talking about those gifts of insignificant value they might offer, a newspaper and coffee in the morning, the mint on the pillow," said Montague, a Baltimore Democrat. "When the hotels start offering free vacations . . . it presents lawmakers with an ethical dilemma."
The Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics has ruled that lawmakers cannot accept incentive packages if they use their state expense accounts to pay for hotel rooms. The ruling also includes frequent-flier incentives offered by airlines.
Montague explained the ruling to Anne Arundel lawmakers recently, though most, if not all, county delegation members commute from home.
"We're spending state money, and any benefit should go back to the state," he said.
Managers at city hotels said their companies have offered incentive programs to their best customers, including lawmakers, for years. They said the incentives are primarily aimed at business travelers.
But Del.John Astle, an Annapolis Democrat and member of the ethics committee, said, "When they first started offering incentives to legislators, no one gave any consideration that the money paying for the rooms wascoming from the state."
The committee reviewed the incentive programs in December after two legislators inquired if they could accept the gifts last fall. Although some lawmakers probably accepted gifts in the past, no one was disciplined, committee members said.
Del. John Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said the ethics committee made a bigger deal than necessary out of the incentives.
"They made it look it like the hotels were saying, 'Come stay with us, whoopee!,' " Arnick said. "Theydidn't even mention (the incentives) when I checked in."
Arnick, who roomed at the Marriott last year, said the only bonuses he received there as a legislator were free coffee, valet parking and a microwave in his room.
Tom Kammerer, general manager of the Annapolis Marriott, said his hotel's incentive program is run worldwide and does not specifically target legislators.