Changes proposed in ethics bill

Arnick amendments would weaken measure to reform state's law

February 17, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Amid widespread grumbling by lawmakers about an ethics reform bill, a key House panel is considering amendments that would significantly weaken the measure.

The amendments, drafted by Del. John S. Arnick, who chairs the House subcommittee handling the bill, would remove the proposed ban on lobbyists buying meals for legislators or giving them tickets to sporting events.

Arnick's proposals would also remove two other provisions of the legislation -- by allowing lawmakers to continue soliciting lobbyists for contributions to charities and making optional an annual ethics counseling session proposed by the task force that drafted the bill.

The head of the Senate subcommittee handling the measure said he also is against the proposal to prohibit lobbyists from buying meals for legislators.

"I don't see any problem with the meal situation as it is now," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat who also heads the General Assembly committee that advises lawmakers on ethics questions.

Lobbyists should be allowed to buy meals for legislators, Collins said, because the daily $30 allowance for senators and delegates is "nowhere near enough" to buy three meals in Annapolis.

Arnick, also a Baltimore County Democrat, said the changes in the ethics bill are needed to placate lawmakers concerned about the reach of the legislation proposed by the task force, which was headed by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin.

"We need to make it a bill that will pass," said Arnick. "I tried to address the major concerns I heard."

But a leading advocate of stronger ethics laws said many of Arnick's proposed changes are misguided and would hurt the bill's effectiveness.

"The intent of the legislation was to put some financial distance between members and lobbyists," said Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "A couple of these things seem to seriously shrink the distance."

The Cardin task force was appointed last year in response to the expulsion of Sen. Larry Young and the forced resignation of Del. Gerald J. Curran, both for ethics violations. The Cardin group called for sweeping changes in Maryland's ethics law, much of which dates back 20 years.

Arnick offered his amendments yesterday as his five-member subcommittee of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee began work on the bill. The panel took no action on proposed changes, although some appeared to enjoy support from other members of the subcommittee.

Arnick said legislators are entitled to receive free tickets to sporting events, even if they are given by lobbyists, because the General Assembly approved funding for the state's major stadiums.

"A lot of members thought that since we voted for the stadiums, there is nothing wrong with coming over to see what they paid for," he said.

But Del. Robert H. Kittleman, the House Republican leader and a subcommittee member, said several of the proposals flew in the face of the Cardin task force's recommendations. He objected to Arnick's effort to remove the proposed ban on legislators soliciting charitable donations from lobbyists -- a practice the Cardin group said creates an unhealthy relationship between lawmaker and lobbyist.

"You can solicit all the lobbyists you want to for all the terrible things you want and there's no problem," said Kittleman, a Howard County Republican. "I don't agree with that at all."

Arnick said many legislators found nothing wrong with the practice, as long as the lawmaker does not benefit financially from the charitable solicitations.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said he had not looked carefully at the proposed changes.

But he said he strongly disagreed with at least one -- to make annual ethics counseling sessions between individual legislators and a staff lawyer optional. "That's the guts of the reform, in my opinion," Taylor said. The sessions should be mandatory, he said, "to change the internal culture, to get everybody focused on ethics."

Pub Date: 2/17/99

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