Buying influence in Annapolis Lobbyists' clout: To get your way with General Assembly often takes huge sums of money.

June 11, 1996

LACK OF public confidence in the integrity of Maryland's legislature should worry General Assembly leaders. When people read that Redskins owner Jack Kent Cooke spent nearly $400,000 over six months to get his new stadium approved, it raises suspicion that politicians are for sale.

A large number of wealthy individuals and companies are pouring hundreds of thousands of dollars into the pockets of lobbyists to work their magic on lawmakers. For instance, gambling interests spent $757,000 in just six months. Yet no casinos were approved, no slot machines sanctioned. Rest assured these casino and slots companies will be back next year with even more money to spend on lobbyists.

State government is where the power lies these days. As Washington hands more responsibilities to the states, businesses rush to the state houses to gain influence on legislation that will affect their livelihoods.

General Assembly leaders have to draw a line lobbyists will respect. Lobbyists befriend lawmakers, always ready to help, to share a drink, to buy lots of fund-raising tickets. Sadly, some legislators return the favor with votes.

Lawmakers must have an arm's-length relationship with lobbyists. The tone set by the presiding officers is crucial. They should deal harshly with legislators who get too close to lobbyists or squeeze them for campaign funds.

More frequent disclosure would be especially helpful. During the General Assembly session, monthly lobbying reports should be required so any abuses can be spotted before legislators make crucial votes. Also, lobbyists should be forced to make frequent disclosures of contributions to General Assembly candidates. If some lobbyists are trying to buy loyalty, the public should know.

There are no easy answers. The right of citizens to petition government is embedded in the Constitution. But the situation is getting out of hand. As lobbying fees soar, legislative leaders should impose high standards on members and frequent lobbyist disclosures. Otherwise, the public will continue to look unkindly toward legislators, and their lobbyist pals.

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