General Assembly leaders stick to reform provisions

Legislators bristle at ethics bill's ban on sports tickets, free meals

February 18, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

With efforts under way to weaken ethics reform legislation, General Assembly leaders reiterated their pledge yesterday to pass a strong bill to repair public mistrust brought on by two scandals last year.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. said key provisions in the bill should remain intact, including a proposal to ban lobbyists from buying meals for individual lawmakers.

Miller and Taylor also said the bill should retain the proposed ban on lobbyists giving sports tickets to legislators.

Responding to reports that key legislators are discussing changes that would weaken the bill substantially in those and other areas, Miller interrupted the morning routine to tell senators he did not want the ethics bill "picked apart."

"It's not going to happen," Miller, a Prince George's Democrat, said in remarks on the Senate floor. "We're not going to pass a sham bill. I'm confident of that. The eyes of the state are upon us, whether we like it or not."

The ethics legislation was written by a task force appointed last year in the wake of the expulsion of a senator and the forced resignation of a delegate. The task force, led by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, proposed the most sweeping changes in state ethics laws in the past 20 years.

Some legislators are bristling at the legislation, saying much of it is unnecessary or goes too far.

Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat and head of a House subcommittee handling the bill, proposed several amendments to weaken the bill this week -- changes he said were necessary to make the measure palatable to the 141-member House of Delegates.

On the issue of meals, Arnick said legislators cannot survive on the $30 daily food allowance provided by taxpayers during the legislative session and should be allowed to rely occasionally on lobbyists to buy them meals. Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat and head of a Senate subcommittee that will work on the bill, agreed with Arnick's assessment about the need for lobbyists to pay for some meals.

Miller and Taylor disagreed, and suggested that the legislature's meal allowance be increased if necessary.

"If $30 a day isn't enough, I would prefer to see us raise the allowance and stay out of the pockets of lobbyists," Taylor said. "I think that's what the public wants us to do."

While Arnick and others have defended the practice of lobbyists giving sports tickets to legislators, Miller and Taylor said it should end.

"It's a nice perk, but it belongs to the thrilling days of yesteryear," Miller said.

Miller and Taylor also said they want to keep language in the legislation requiring legislators to meet annually with an ethics adviser -- something Arnick and other lawmakers have proposed making optional.

Helen Koss, a former delegate from Montgomery County and a member of the Cardin task force, warned against major changes in the bill. She said Miller and Taylor would likely have strong control over the legislation's final shape.

"Passage of this bill is going to depend on what kind of push the presiding officers put behind it," Koss said.

Sun staff writer Matthew Mosk contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/18/99

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