House approves bill altering ethics rules

Some groups could lobby without having to register

March 22, 2002|By Ivan Penn and Sarah Koenig | Ivan Penn and Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

After heated debate, the House of Delegates passed an ethics bill yesterday that critics said would create loopholes in a law that lawmakers have tried for years to strengthen.

Under the proposal, which was heavily amended, members of professional and trade associations and nonprofit groups could lobby state officials for as many as 40 days a year without having to register with the State Ethics Commission.

"This is a very bad step," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat. "It's contrary to open government, which we have been pushing for over the last couple of years."

The House voted 104-22 for the bill, which moves to the Senate.

The legislation, House Bill 1076, was designed to clarify ambiguous language in the ethics law and to help nonprofit groups voice their concerns to lawmakers without having to pay the costs of registering as lobbyists - expenses many groups cannot afford.

"The bill does close what has been a bad interpretation of the law," Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat and a co-sponsor of the bill, said during yesterday's debate on the House floor.

Del. Ann Marie Doory, a Baltimore Democrat, said the bill is needed to ensure that all groups have a voice in Annapolis. "This is a vote for the First Amendment, right here," Doory said.

But Bobo and others argue that the bill goes too far. While she supports helping the nonprofit organizations, Bobo said that adding the other groups, and in particular the trade organizations, opens the door to potential abuse and weakens some lobbying regulations that have been in place for 25 years.

Such a broad exemption from registering for members of the trade and professional associations will make it difficult to police those groups and to know what interests individuals are trying to protect, critics said.

The trade associations include organizations such as chambers of commerce, while the professional associations represent groups such as doctors, lawyers and accountants.

Another problem, Bobo said, is that only those required to register as lobbyists are subject to the reporting requirements of the state ethics law, which include disclosure of who is paying the lobbyists' expenses and compensation.

Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, added an amendment that prohibits members of the groups exempt from registering as lobbyists from giving gifts to state officials.

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