Ethics reform legislation poised for passage in General Assembly

Proposal would require lobbyists, assemblymen to disclose payments

March 24, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly moved a step forward in the continuing fight over ethics reform yesterday when the House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to a bill requiring disclosure of business transactions between legislators and lobbyists.

"It's not everything we wanted, but it's another step in the right direction," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. "It will help further enhance an internal cultural change in our institution regarding our relationship with lobbyists."

The bill was one of two that legislative leaders submitted early last month. As expected, the House Committee on Commerce and Government Matters killed the stronger of the two, a bill that would have banned transactions between legislators and lobbyists.

Taylor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller introduced both bills in response to the December indictments of Del. Tony Fulton and State House lobbyist Gerard E. Evans on mail fraud charges. Those indictments came after the General Assembly had been rocked the previous two years by ethics violations that led to the expulsion of one legislator, the resignation of another and the conviction of a prominent lobbyist.

Taylor said those incidents have contributed to an erosion of public confidence.

"I think there's an overall unfortunate cynicism regarding the ethics of government, and it's destructive to America," he said. "We need [the bill] to continue increasing the public confidence in our institutions and in our process."

Many legislators have grumbled that the two bills were unnecessary. Del. John F. Wood Jr., chairman of the House committee that heard the bill, said he would have preferred to send the ethics issue to the lobbying study committee headed by former Del. Donald B. Robertson. That committee is expected to make recommendations for legislative changes next year.

Still, Wood conceded that Taylor and other legislators wanted to push forward this year on ethics reform. "It accomplishes something, maybe," said Wood, a St. Mary's Democrat. "We've had problems, yeah, but I think we've taken care of our problems."

The disclosure bill has its roots in similar legislation introduced more than a decade ago by former Sen. Julian L. Lapides.

"The beauty of the disclosure bill, as Senator Lapides proposed it, was that it cast a fairly wide net without placing a serious burden on legislators and provided the public with an excellent overview of where the money goes from the lobbying industry," said Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a political watchdog group. "We have always believed that the disclosure approach is a good approach."

The bill, which is expected to pass the full House of Delegates in the next few days, requires lobbyists to disclose business transactions with legislators that involve $1,000 or more for a single transaction or $5,000 or more for a series of transactions that occurred during six months before semi-annual filing dates with the state Ethics Commission.

The bill also has strong leadership support in the Senate, where it will be voted on by the Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee. Miller said he and Taylor would put their political muscle behind the bill and make an appeal during the Senate committee hearing.

Miller said he feels "a message needs to be sent" to encourage disclosure of business deals.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, committee chairman and Senate Majority Leader, said he understands public concerns that lobbyists exert undue influence in Annapolis. Blount was cautiously optimistic about the bill's fate as it joins other major issues seeking passage in the last days of this year's legislative session.

"I would suggest that the bill is going to be considered favorably by the committee," he said. "That's not a guarantee, but there are feelings among us here that that should be looked into."

In Annapolis

Today's highlights:

House of Delegates meets. 10 a.m. House chamber.

Senate meets to consider the governor's gun safety bill. 10 a.m. Senate chamber.

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