Horse race or cultural experience?

The Political Game

Question: If, under the new ethics law, the annual Preakness Stakes is defined as a `sporting' event, Maryland legislators could miss out on a lot of free tickets next year and in the future.

August 31, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

THIS YEAR'S passage of a new ethics law covering General Assembly members has sparked something of a philosophical question in Annapolis: Is the Preakness Stakes a "sporting" or "cultural" event?

For the jockeys and trainers, the third Saturday in May is all about sports and betting. For the sunburned beer-guzzlers running amok in the infield, the Preakness is, well, a cultural experience of a sort.

But for legislators, it's a tougher question and, as is so often the case, money is riding on the answer.

Under the new ethics law, which goes into effect in October, legislators will no longer be able to accept free tickets to sporting events from lobbyists and team owners. Baltimore Orioles majority owner Peter G. Angelos, for example, and his lobbyists won't be able to hand out O's tickets to state lawmakers after Oct. 1.

But the law specifically allows legislators to continue to accept tickets to other events, including "cultural" ones. The distinction was made after some lobbyists were criticized for handing out stacks of tickets to basketball games and other sports events; there had been little outcry about free tickets to the opera or symphony.

No event has attracted more freeloading legislators than the Preakness.

In 1998, a full quarter of the 188-member General Assembly -- and dozens of their guests -- accepted free tickets and a lavishly catered spread at the Preakness from the owners of Pimlico and Laurel.

In all, lawmakers and their guests received $17,000 worth of freebies at the 1998 Preakness and at a party the night before. The owners of Pimlico and Laurel come to Annapolis nearly every year with millions of dollars at stake in legislation.

If the Preakness is deemed a cultural outing, legislators will be free to continue accepting such gifts. The General Assembly's joint ethics committee will make a determination on the issue before the Preakness next May.

State Sen. Michael J. Collins, co-chairman of the committee, said he can see both sides.

He attended the race this year as a guest of Gov. Parris N. Glendening. "I never saw a horse," Collins said.

"I talked to a lot of people," added Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat. "I saw a lot of other people who were there to schmooze. It was like a garden party."

Collins posed the question this way: "Is the Preakness that two minutes or whatever it takes the horse to run that distance, or is it something different?"

Another observer might pose the question differently: Are legislators serious about improving their image with the public?

Other states, such as Calif., not as strict on fund raising

In all fairness, Maryland legislators do sometimes set a positive ethics example for other states.

For example, the General Assembly has banned state lawmakers from raising money during the annual 90-day legislative session that runs from January to early April.

The legislature decided it looked bad to have members hitting up lobbyists and corporations for donations as the Assembly was considering legislation affecting their interests.

But many other states allow such fund raising. The California legislature will recess for the year Sept. 10. While hundreds of issues are being decided in the final days, lawmakers are holding dozens of fund-raisers.

Today alone, seven such events are scheduled, including a $2,000-a-head party for John Burton, the president pro tem of the California Senate.

In statements that call to mind Willie Sutton, the famed bank robber, Burton told the San Francisco Chronicle he saw nothing wrong with asking for money while the legislature is in session.

"You have fund-raisers when people are around Sacramento," Burton said. "After the session, they aren't going to be around."

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