Assembly begins its session today Proposals will include curbs on lobbyists 1995 SESSION OF THE MARYLAND GENERAL ASSEMBLY

January 11, 1995|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,Sun Staff Writer

After years of lip service to reform efforts, leaders of the Maryland General Assembly say they will work to limit members' reliance on the generosity of lobbyists during the 90-day session that begins today.

Bills being introduced today would attack the tradition of legislators being wined and dined by lobbyists. Some would ban free meals, require lobbyists to name their meal partners, and force lawmakers to wait two years before becoming professional advocates.

The interest in reforms on lobbying has its roots in the felony conviction of a top Annapolis lobbyist and the 1994 election, which ushered in the largest freshman class in two decades.

Eighty-two legislators will take new seats today, and many are wary of "business as usual."

They were elected the same week that Bruce C. Bereano, Annapolis' most successful lobbyist, went on trial for mail fraud.

The trial illuminated the often-cozy relationships between politicians and lobbyists, with testimony on the free meals, drinks, gifts, receptions and sports tickets that Bereano, like other lobbyists, lavished on legislators.

As one juror later said, "It's almost naive to think [legislators] don't base part of their decision on what they get from whom."

"Bruce Bereano's conviction has made legislators very sensitive to the public perception that lobbyists have undue influence and access," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, the self-proclaimed citizens' lobby.

Veteran lobbyist George N. Manis is more blunt: "The public has the perception that what the lobbyist is doing is buying all the votes."

He insists, however, that the public is wrong. "I've had legislators that I've bought dinners for, and they go in there the next day and vote against me."

While many legislators agree that special interests don't own them, more and more admit that the freebies make them look bad. "We're looking more like Congress all the time," lamented Democratic Del. D. Bruce Poole of Washington County.

"If the perception is there, then we have to fix it," said House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman, a Howard County Republican.

Other states' laws

At least 40 states have some restrictions on the gifts officials may accept, while a handful ban almost all gifts.

Mr. Kittleman supports a total ban on gifts, meals and entertainment from lobbyists. The ban was part of the "Contract with Maryland" signed by many Republican candidates last fall.

But besides the increase in Republicans, the increased number of new legislators is likely to contribute to an atmosphere for change.

"The new legislators are very shy about lobbyists to begin with," said lobbyist Gerard E. Evans, "and you add on to that the recent events that have happened to lobbyists, and they're even more shy,"

Baltimore Del. Gerald J. Curran, who chairs the Commerce and Government Matters Committee, is introducing five ethics and lobbying reform bills today.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a Democrat from Western Maryland, said he wanted Mr. Curran to put a range of ideas "from A to Z" before his committee so that some version could pass.

His counterpart in the Democratic-controlled Senate, President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., also said he believed some changes would emerge this year.

Although Democrats have been lukewarm to the issue in recent years, some Republicans aren't surprised they are now interested in reforms.

"I doubt the Democrats want to see Republicans get so far out in front of an issue that is so popular with the public," said Carol Arscott, a political consultant active in GOP politics.

Some of the Curran bills would close loopholes that allow legislators to accept many gifts without having their names reported to state ethics officials.

The mere act of disclosure would help reduce the perception of the gifts being tainted, said John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission. "Sunshine is the best disinfectant."

'No cup of coffee'

Delegate Kittleman and other legislators want to go even further. Supporters of the so-called "no cup of coffee" bill say legislators don't need to accept free meals because the state already reimburses them for food.

"There's really no need for a legislator to accept a gratuitous meal from a lobbyist during the session," said Baltimore Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Democrat who serves on the Legislative Ethics Committee.

Despite the meal allowance, it's still uncommon for a legislator to pick up his or her own tab when having a dinner meeting with a lobbyist, several lobbyists said.

Delegate Kittleman said he was regarded as something of an odd duck when he came to Annapolis in 1983 and insisted on paying for his dinners. To avoid embarrassing other lawmakers dining with him, he would pay their lobbyist-host for his dinner "under the table." But times have changed, he said. "Now I can do it openly and no one cares."

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