Study of state lobbying sought

Proposed task force would review laws, create ethics code

February 20, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Even as the General Assembly grapples with ethics-reform legislation, key lawmakers are proposing a study of the laws covering State House lobbyists, whose ranks and influence have mushroomed in recent years.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. introduced legislation yesterday to create a task force to review laws covering lobbyists and explore the need for stricter regulation of the Annapolis lobbying corps.

The task force would also be charged with developing "a code of ethics" for lobbying, an increasingly cutthroat business.

"I think it's compatible with what we're doing with our own ethics," said Taylor, a Cumberland Democrat. "We're one big part of this system. So is lobbying."

A similar measure has been introduced in the Senate by Mi- chael J. Collins, chairman of a subcommittee that handles ethics legislation.

J. William Pitcher, head of the Maryland Governmental Relations Association, which represents lobbyists, said his group would welcome an examination of the laws as part of an effort to curb abuses.

"We all get dragged down by one or two people who obviously go over the line," said Pitcher, a veteran State House lobbyist.

The idea for such a task force grew out of the work last year of a commission headed by U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, which drafted comprehensive ethics-reform legislation and concluded that a further review of state lobbying laws was overdue.

In particular, the Cardin commission proposed an overhaul of the state's hard-to-read law governing gifts from lobbyists to public officials and a review of the statute covering the solicitation of campaign contributions from lobbyists.

Under current law, a person must register as a lobbyist if he or she is paid more than $500 or spends more than $100 seeking to influence legislation. Registered lobbyists must also file reports detailing their compensation and expenses -- as well as the legislation they are seeking to affect -- with the State Ethics Commission.

The commission can impose fines and reprimands on lobbyists who violate those statutes.

But some legislative leaders have discussed the need for a more stringent regulatory system, possibly including a requirement that lobbyists be licensed by an independent commission.

Such a licensing system would raise constitutional questions, one expert said.

"I would be very skeptical of a board that would have that authority, unless the criteria were extremely objective, because we all know lobbying is a protected First Amendment right," said Kenneth A. Gross, former enforcement chief at the Federal Election Commission and co-author of a publication tracking state lobbying laws.

But Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a government watchdog group, said the state should follow the lead of Kentucky, where a commission has the power to suspend lobbyists from practicing their trade after major violations.

"In other states that take their ethics laws seriously, they subject lobbyists to the same prohibitions and penalties and consequences as they do public officials," Skullney said.

Sun staff writer Gady A. Epstein contributed to this article.

Pub Date: 2/20/99

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