Task force starts review of whether to strengthen regulation of lobbyists

Licensing plan unlikely to get OK, chairman says

September 10, 1999|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

A state task force began looking yesterday at whether Maryland needs to strengthen its regulation of Annapolis lobbyists, whose numbers and influence have grown in recent years.

The 13-member panel, appointed by the governor and the General Assembly's presiding officers, gave no indication of changes it may propose.

But its chairman suggested that it was unlikely the group would adopt a sweeping proposal, floated by some legislators, to establish a system of licensing and certification for lobbyists.

The chairman, former Del. Donald B. Robertson, said such a system could violate constitutional protections of free speech. "I'm sure those suggestions will be presented," said Robertson, a Montgomery County Democrat. "But I think there would be lots of constitutional issues with those."

Robertson said he wants to hear from interested parties before commenting on specific proposals and said his key goal for the commission is to make sure lobbyists for moneyed interests are not dominating legislative deliberations.

"The concern is that money spent by lobbyists is buying for them a degree of access and influence that isn't available to the general public and is affecting the outcome of legislation," said Robertson, who served in the General Assembly from 1971 to 1989.

Concerned about lobbying excesses in recent years, the Assembly passed legislation this year calling for the review.

The task force is to present recommendations by the end of the year, in time for consideration during the legislative session that begins in January.

The commission includes five state legislators, four lobbyists and four members of the public, including Robertson.

Commission member J. William Pitcher, a longtime Annapolis lobbyist, said he hopes the panel will simplify lobbying laws that are confusing and sometimes illogical after years of piecemeal changes. "It's hard to understand and sometimes hard to comply with," Pitcher said.

State law requires lobbyists to register with the State Ethics Commission and file semiannual reports detailing how much they were paid and what their lobbying expenses were for each client.

Pitcher said he sees no major problems with State House lobbying practices and pointed to the relatively small number of cases in which the Ethics Commission has cited lobbyists for violations of the law, 101 citations in the past 20 years, most of them concerning lobbyists missing deadlines for filing financial reports.

The number of lobbyists in Annapolis has soared, as has the amount of money that special interests pay for lobbying. In the 12 months that ended Oct. 31, companies and other entities reported spending more than $22 million on lobbying, up from $9.4 million a decade earlier.

Last year, 905 companies and other organizations hired lobbyists, up from 545 in 1988.

The call for a study of lobbying laws began last year with Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a 3rd District Democrat who headed a similar task force that examined ethics laws governing state legislators.

Momentum for the study grew with articles detailing a 1998 transaction in which Democratic Baltimore Del. Tony E. Fulton served as the real estate agent for two prominent lobbyists. That transaction is under scrutiny as part of a federal criminal investigation focusing on the two lobbyists, Gerard E. Evans and John R. Stierhoff.

Pub Date: 9/10/99

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