Getting tough on legislative ethics Cardin commission: Major changes would bar lawmakers from accepting lobbyists' free meals, sports tickets.

September 10, 1998

IT HAS TAKEN nearly 20 years, but Maryland's state lawmakers now seem serious about imposing tougher ethics standards on themselves.

No more free gourmet meals from lobbyists. No more free sports or cultural tickets from those seeking influence and access. No more loopholes that allow lawmakers to vote on bills in spite of personal conflicts of interest. No more hiding potential conflicts until after the votes.

These are among the recommendations of a blue-ribbon commission led by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who previously served eight years as speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates. The 15-member panel -- which included seven current legislators -- not only wants to curb the excesses of a few state senators and delegates, it wants to make all lawmakers in Annapolis far more accountable to the public for their actions.

Financial disclosures and disclosure of potential conflicts by lawmakers would be made public on the Internet. Legislators would have to file these forms before the General Assembly's annual session gets rolling, not afterward.

And the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics would be given key self-policing tools to act forcefully against alleged offenders -- including subpoena power.

These would be major advances. Strong endorsement of the commission's proposal by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. -- who championed some of these changes in the last session -- and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller will make it difficult for foes of reform to block implementation.

One of the key proposals, which the two presiding officers intend to implement immediately, calls for a full-time legal counsel to educate legislators about their ethical obligations. The counsel could also provide guidance to help legislators comply with the complex law.

The Cardin proposals would help draw a sharper line between lobbyists and lawmakers. It would define much more clearly what legislators can and cannot do.

Not only would free meals and sports and cultural tickets be perks of the past, but lawmakers no longer would be allowed to press lobbyists for contributions to their favorite charities. -- a backdoor quid pro quo.

Not since Maryland's first legislative ethics law was enacted in 1979 has there been an overhaul. It is sorely needed. Current law contains too many loopholes and contradictory or murky language.

The Cardin commission's proposal is an excellent step forward. Still, some incumbents are already talking about weakening the proposal when the General Assembly convenes in January.

That won't do.

Lawmakers should accept the proposal of the Cardin panel. That's a good way to show a cynical public that elected leaders care about ensuring the integrity of Maryland's legislature.

Pub Date: 9/10/98

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