Despite reform, no room at table

Ethics: Efforts to broaden access to the Assembly have instead shut out the advocacy groups they were to help.

February 08, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Tomorrow morning, a coalition of community groups will serve homemade coffeecake and blueberry muffins to a House committee in Annapolis -- part of a low-budget lobbying campaign against a financial practice known as payday lending.

Nine hours later, the same committee will sit down in a comfortable Eastport restaurant known for its fat steaks, white tablecloths and enormous tabs -- courtesy of the payday lending industry.

The striking contrast between the free-spending lenders who want to win legal protections in Maryland and their lightly funded opponents speaks volumes about the state's legislative ethics law.

Under pressure after a series of scandals, the General Assembly passed major changes in the ethics law last year, including a provision that bans lobbyists from taking a senator or delegate out to eat.

But the same law allows a lobbyist to pick up the tab for an entire committee.

With Assembly committees having as many as 28 members, taking one to dinner at an Annapolis restaurant is no cheap undertaking.

"All of the groups that don't command those kinds of charge cards can't do it," said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, which lobbies for strict ethics laws. "So what you have is a huge money gulf."

In the past, nonprofit advocacy groups that could barely afford a lobbyist may have had enough money to take a couple key legislators out for moderately priced meals to discuss issues.

Now, they are shut out almost entirely from Annapolis entertainment.

"We could afford to take a legislator out for a breakfast, maybe even an occasional dinner in the past," said David Conn, lobbyist for the Maryland Jewish Alliance. "But we could never afford to take a full committee out to a meal."

A loophole

Attempting to break the perception that lawmakers had grown too cozy with special interests, the Assembly opted last year to ban lobbyists from paying for meals for individual lawmakers, a longtime staple of Annapolis life.

But legislators decided that committee dinners -- group meetings ostensibly centered on a particular issue -- are defensible.

Tomorrow's competing efforts center on payday lending, a practice in which storefront operators lend money to workers against their next paycheck. The lenders say they provide a needed service. Opponents say the transactions -- which carry fees that often work out to an annual interest rate of 500 percent or more -- amount to loan-sharking.

Offering access

An organizer of tomorrow's breakfast said the event is needed to give the public informal access to members of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee to discuss payday lending and related financial issues.

"It's important that if they're going to spend a couple of hours being wined and dined at a $100 dinner, they can spend a half-hour with a little coffee and coffeecake," said Deborah A. Povich, a lobbyist for the Maryland Center for Community Development, one of several groups teaming up on the payday loan issue.

On the other side, American Joe Miedusiewski, a former senator who is lobbying on behalf of payday lenders, said his clients will attend the steak dinner tomorrow night to give their side of the issue in a casual, albeit expensive, way.

"You get people there who feel comfortable together," Miedusiewski said. "If there is an issue you want to talk about, it's convenient."

A chance to listen

John A. Pica Jr., a former senator who lobbies for Baltimore lawyer Peter G. Angelos and a handful of other clients, has played host at Italian dinners for committees several times a session, occasionally taking the same committee out twice during the three-month session.

"It allows for good discussion," Pica said. "You get an opportunity to find out what's on the minds of legislators."

Ten years ago, such dinners were almost unheard of.

But during the past few sessions, committee dinners have become an increasingly prevalent part of the Annapolis culture. In 1998, for example, lobbyists and special interests were the hosts at 89 committee dinners, according to figures compiled by the State Ethics Commission.

The Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over a host of big-money health-care and insurance issues, led the way with 17 meals -- more than one a week for the 90-day session.

In the House, the Economic Matters Committee has set aside Wednesday nights to handle the flurry of dinner invitations from special interests.

And be heard

Del. Michael E. Busch, the committee chairman, said the dinners, which often run as long as three hours, give the lobbyists and their clients a chance to be heard. They also provide the panel members a chance to socialize among themselves.

"I think the benefit is adding camaraderie to the committee," said Busch, an Anne Arundel Democrat, quickly adding, "If they banned committee dinners I'd be just as happy."

Busch acknowledged the difficulty that under-funded groups face in competing with high-profile lobbyists for face time over dinner.

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