Senate reviews lobbyist bill

Critics say measure would create loophole for large corporations

April 04, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Some of Maryland's biggest corporations would be able to influence legislation in Annapolis without having to tell the public or adhere to the lobbyist code of ethics if a bill already passed by the House of Delegates becomes law.

Under the legislation, to be heard by a Senate committee today, people now registered as lobbyists for companies such as Verizon, CareFirst BlueCross BlueShield and Potomac Electric Power Co. would likely be exempt from registration, as long as they spend less than 20 percent of their work time lobbying.

The bill was originally designed to address complaints about the new lobbyist ethics law that took effect last year, and which many people say is too restrictive.

Lobbyists cannot serve on state boards and commissions, which particularly irritated members of nonprofit groups and trade and professional organizations.

In addition, some worry that the complicated law is stifling citizen participation in the General Assembly because the Maryland Ethics Commission has interpreted the law (some privately say "misinterpreted") to mean that a business owner who comes to Annapolis once or twice to testify could easily trigger the lobbyist registration requirements.

"The problem is, the letter of the law is absurd," said Henry W. Bogdan of the Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organizations. "Say you come down here for a local bond bill. Now suddenly you fall under all these things that are designed for the sharks."

To rectify those problems, House members came up with a new set of exemptions, for nonprofit groups and trade and professional organizations, students and any "individual" who spends less than 20 percent of his or her work time lobbying during a six-month reporting period.

"We don't think we need to classify those types of people as lobbyists," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., a sponsor of the bill, because their lobbying efforts are "incidental."

But other lawmakers and campaign finance reform advocates say that exemption creates a giant loophole for the state's most powerful businesses -- and most generous political donors.

For example, Verizon employee G. Donald Heath was paid $594.30, with $208.18 in expenses, for lobbying between May and October last year. Under the new regulations, he would probably not trip the 20 percent threshold, and so would not have to register as a lobbyist.

Since 1999, the Bell Atlantic/Verizon political action committee has donated $107,251 to Maryland candidates.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, compiled a stack of such examples in preparation for today's hearing before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

While the bill was meant to ensure the voices of nonprofit groups and residents are not stifled, "it gives a much greater advantage to large corporations," he said.

Donald B. Robertson, former majority leader of the House of Delegates who led a task force to study the state's lobbying corps, agrees. In a letter to lawmakers, he wrote that the bill's exceptions "would appear to serve large organizations far better than individuals representing their own interests."

The bill has other complications, said Suzanne S. Fox, director of the Maryland Ethics Commission, who takes no official position for or against it.

Part-time lobbyists who don't trigger registration requirements wouldn't have to file lobbyist reports with the state, so it is unclear how the public would know who they are, she said.

Another problem is how to calculate 20 percent of someone's work time, because some part-time lobbyists are unsalaried, or volunteers. "As soon as you figure it out, will you let me know?" Fox said.

In Annapolis

Today's highlights

10 a.m. Senate meets, Senate chamber.

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

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