Ethics issues take a toll At halfway point, state lawmakers face an overflow of issues

'The session begins now'

Ethical concerns have overshadowed key legislation

March 01, 1998|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF Sun staff writers Thomas W. Waldron and William F. Zorzi Jr. contributed to this article.

Halfway through their 90-day legislative session, Maryland lawmakers are hoping they can finally escape the glare of scandal and devote all their attention to the people's business.

Having endured 45 days of embarrassing disclosures about the alleged ethical lapses of two key committee chairmen -- and their subsequent departures -- the General Assembly must deal quickly with an overflowing hopper of ambitious new programs.

The menu includes an accelerated income-tax cut proposal, a bill to provide health insurance for children of the working poor, decisions about how the state's growing budget surplus will be used, and regulations meant to avoid another summer of fish lesions and closed rivers caused by Pfiesteria.

"In all honesty," said Del. John Adams Hurson, the House majority leader, "we have been significantly diverted from legislative concerns. We are preceding less quickly than we usually do."

Said his Republican counterpart, Del. Robert H. Kittleman: "The session begins now."

When they This line is longer than measure/can't be broken arrived in Annapolis on Jan. 14, Assembly leaders moved quickly to investigate reports that former Sen. Larry Young had violated ethics rules, hoping to put unpleasantness behind them. They surprised many by quickly meting out the most severe punishment -- expulsion.

That action was followed by a report that a House committee chairman, Gerald J. Curran, had blurred the lines between his legislative office and his professional life, giving himself lucrative business opportunities. That investigation led to Curran's resignation Friday.

But even now the ethical concerns have not subsided.

According to the Washington Post, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. used undue pressure to help a friend in Cumberland win a sweetheart land deal. Taylor vehemently denies doing anything beyond his usual efforts to assist constituents.

While many in and out of the State House have applauded the forced housecleaning, others fear that a heightened scrutiny will paralyze the Assembly. Some are calling it a "media frenzy." Others say it is the inevitable outcome of years in which legislators did not take sufficient care to avoid a collision between their public and private lives.

"It seems as if everybody's under the microscope," said Del. James F. Ports Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "It's pretty depressing in the House and the Senate."

No one in the governmental community has gone unaffected.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has been obliged to spend time dealing with the downfall of his political ally Young and has been left hoping that his election-year legislative package will eventually get the attention he feels it deserves.

'Very optimistic'

Glendening spokesman Ray Feldmann said the governor is "very optimistic" that his proposals will be enacted. "The package is moving forward despite the distractions." Legislative leaders agreed, predicting that many of the bills will emerge from the shadows as the session continues.

But the extraordinary drama surrounding Young and Curran has been irresistible grist for Republicans. Even without the problems of the Democrats, the GOP made clear from the beginning that it saw the 1998 Assembly session as a 90-day opportunity to create issues for this year's legislative and gubernatorial elections.

"There is a responsibility to prioritize," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard Republican. "You can't have everything. You can't promise everything to everybody."

But it remains unclear when the governor's promises will come into unobstructed view.

Hours before Curran gave his departing speech, House members read the article in which Taylor was reported to have pressured an appraiser to come up with a price favorable to his friend. Taylor categorically denied that, saying he had merely urged the appraiser to move more quickly.

He rejected the necessity for yet another ethics probe -- of himself this time. Perhaps as a measure of the Assembly's scandal fatigue, Taylor drew immediate support from Republican leader Kittleman, who said the speaker had provided "outstanding" leadership for those seeking tighter, clearer laws on ethics and campaign fund raising.

As for the impact of all this on the Assembly's work, Taylor insisted his committees are moving important pieces of legislation. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the upheaval had taken an inevitable toll.

"It's kept the speaker and I from focusing on key issues that need to be dealt with," he said. One of the issues that has been shortchanged so far, he said, is electric utility deregulation, an "extremely complex issue on which the sides are miles apart."

Said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat: "We have not had substantive debates, so we get into partisan debates."

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