Not yet ready to hang up the white hat

April 14, 2002|By C. Fraser Smith

HE WAS the best spiker of bad bills Annapolis ever knew. Late in every General Assembly session, he'd take his position at the figurative net. When the game was intense and the mind fatigued, Don Robertson of Montgomery County was at his best.

His eyes never glazed over. He never tired of the detail. If he couldn't understand the thrust of legislation, he'd stand on the floor of the House asking questions until he did understand.

"What does this bill do, Mr. Chairman?" he'd intone.

Uh-oh. Busted.

One year, he came upon a proposal cloaked in the garb of press freedom. In fact, it attacked a reporter's ability to protect sources and thus to gather sensitive information.

When Delegate Robertson's question came, the chairman put up his hands in the "you've got me" posture. No friend of the press, he had taken a bill expanding press protections and cut them way back.

That bill had to be killed. But a few years later, the right measure in the right form did pass. Most of the time, the bad ones collapsed quietly and no one knew but Mr. Robertson. Fine with him.

He retired from the Assembly years ago, but he never gave up his role as spotter of trouble.

Last year, the Assembly adopted a revision of the state's lobbying law produced by a commission he chaired. This year, continuing with a long project, he's been sweating the details of re-codifying the state's election laws. While working at that task, he came across another troubling bill: He thought it would push a wide loophole into the newly improved lobbyist registration law.

After years of effort to separate lobbyists from political fund-raising - a troubling conflict of interest - this legislation might have forged a troubling new link. Loopholes often aren't accidents.

For nonprofit groups or individuals advocating some issue, the registration requirements seem onerous. So some of them sought to have the requirements loosened. As drafted, though, the bill might have loosened the requirements for large categories of commercial interests who could have worked for or against legislation without registering.

A slew of unfortunate things would or could have resulted from that exemption: Unregistered lobbyists wouldn't have had to comply with reporting requirements that show who spent how much to influence what legislation. They wouldn't have had to abide by some campaign contribution limits, or the prohibition against lobbyists as key fund-raisers for candidates and other important aspects of the ethics law.

Don Robertson moved closer to the net. He called the sponsors of the bill. He explained his concerns. He called friends who would likely join him in opposing the legislation. Still, it passed in the House by a wide margin after insertion of an amendment that, Mr. Robertson thought, made things worse.

So then he recruited Common Cause and other good government interests to start working the bill in the Senate. He wrote a detailed letter to the chairman of the Senate committee then in charge of its fate. He suggested ways to fix the bill. In time, most were accepted.

As always, though, he knows the work isn't done.

A provision of the new law as passed on the last night of the recently concluded session would leave a big job for the Ethics Commission. Current law prohibits lobbyists from serving on some official state boards and commissions. The ethics panel will now determine which of these should continue to be off-limits to lobbyists.

For example, should a lobbyist serve on the General Assembly's compensation commission? That body decides how much senators and delegates get paid. Suppose I'm a lobbyist who needs a vote and you're a legislator who wants a raise. Should I be on the compensation panel?

Or suppose you're on a commission whose work brings you into close contact with the governor or some other ranking official. Maybe it's not appropriate for you to be lobbying the governor on behalf of a paying client.

Whatever rules are made, Don Robertson will be there to review them. Spiker Don just can't retire.

C. Fraser Smith is an editorial writer for The Sun.

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