Legislators get free day at track

Tax dollars to pay for Glendening's Preakness guests

State to spend $140,000

They aren't allowed to get free tickets from Pimlico owners

May 16, 2000|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

With state law for the first time banning General Assembly members from accepting free Preakness tickets from the owners of Pimlico, Gov. Parris N. Glendening has stepped in and invited legislators to attend Saturday's race in style -- courtesy of the taxpayers.

The governor has invited all 188 legislators and one guest apiece to spend the day in the state government's hospitality tent, which will feature an open bar and a buffet serving roast beef and crab cakes, at about $180 a person.

A spokesman said the governor made the invitations "in light of" a change in Maryland's ethics law, which went into effect last fall and prohibits lobbyists or their employers from giving sports tickets to lawmakers.

In the past, the owners of Pimlico invited legislators to spend Preakness day at the track at no charge, an offer many lawmakers accepted.

"In light of the fact that the racing industry cannot invite the legislators, the governor invited all of them," said Glendening spokesman Michael Morrill.

Because the Assembly plays a key role in the state's economic development effort, he said, legislators should be included in an event designed to market Maryland to businesses.

The administration is inviting about 1,200 people -- including the legislators and their guests -- to attend the race and dine at taxpayer expense, said Linda West, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Business and Economic Development.

Seventy-five senators and delegates have said they will attend. Officials expect about 900 people to take advantage of the offer, West said.

Saturday's entertainment will cost the state $140,000, she said, with local economic development agencies chipping in $22,000.

If 900 people attend, the state and local governments will spend about $180 a person, which means $360 for each legislator and guest that attend.

Morrill said the hospitality tent is an important part of Maryland's efforts to lure companies to the state or to expand their operations here.

The guest list includes executives of companies from Maryland and other states, corporate relocation experts and real estate consultants.

Legislators are being included this year to reflect the importance they play in the state's economic development effort, Morrill said.

"These legislators vote every year on numerous initiatives to help expand economic development in the state," he said.

At the Preakness, they will be "able to talk to the people taking advantage of those programs."

The leader of a Maryland group that advocates stricter ethics laws called it odd that the governor would use state funds for a legislative "perk" that would be banned had it been paid for by the track's owners.

"If it really was a perk that created a questionable appearance, then why would you fix it by charging the taxpayers for it?" said Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.

"If it's such an important cultural event then it seems to me that all the citizens share in that, and ought to be able to go and stop by the state's economic development tent and have a refreshment."

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a longtime backer of Maryland racing, defended the use of state money to entertain legislators.

"I think it's important that the legislators be there, that they know the importance of racing in the state," said Miller, a Prince George's County Democrat who will skip the race to attend his daughter's college graduation.

"It's a small investment in terms of educating legislators," he said.

Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard County Republican who is generally quick to point out what he deems excessive spending by Glendening's Democratic administration, had little to say about the Preakness invitations.

"I have to say I've been there," Flanagan said.

He added that though he has visited the state tent in the past, he has made it a practice to purchase his seat for the day.

The state tent sits amid a "village" of tents paid for by corporations that use the opportunity to entertain.

A chain-link fence separates the corporate village from the remainder of the track's infield.

Although the new law prohibits tracks from giving legislators tickets to races, Pimlico's owners are allowed to hand out tickets to social events related to the Preakness.

This year, they have invited legislators to a pre-Preakness party in Baltimore on Friday night, a $50 value.

The track also has invited legislators to a reception Thursday night in Washington, a ticket with a $40 value.

Two years ago, more than a quarter of the legislature and dozens of their guests took advantage of free tickets and a catered spread at the Preakness.

In all, lawmakers and their guests received $17,000 worth of free items at the race and the party the previous night, according to disclosure forms filed by the track at the State Ethics Commission.

The General Assembly passed legislation this year authorizing the state to help finance major renovations at Pimlico and other racetracks in Maryland.

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