WITH temperatures rising and the pace of work slowing, the thoughts of many politicians are turning to exciting travel destinations.
The junket season kicked off last week when five state senators and four delegates traveled to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, for a four-day spring meeting of the Council of State Governments.
FOR THE RECORD - Because of incorrect information provided by the office of House Speaker Michael E. Busch, the Political Game column in yesterday's editions of The Sun misidentified some delegates attending a Council of State Governments meeting in St. Thomas, Virgin Islands. Del. Dereck E. Davis did not participate, but Del. Anthony G. Brown did attend. Both are Prince George's County Democrats. Del. Kenneth D. Schisler, an Eastern Shore Republican, also attended the meeting.
The trip doesn't appear to be outrageously opulent: conference fees were $200; hotel rooms at the Marriott Frenchman's Reef started at $160 a night (although they rose to $450-$1,200 for suites); and meeting topics included "public safety communications interoperability."
But it was probably a nice break for Sens. James E. DeGrange Sr. of Anne Arundel County, Lisa A. Gladden of Baltimore, Patrick J. Hogan of Montgomery County, Paula C. Hollinger of Baltimore County and Edward J. Kasemeyer of Howard County; and Dels. George W. Owings III of Calvert County and Dereck E. Davis, Melony Ghee Griffith and Joseph F. Vallario Jr. of Prince George's County. All are Democrats.
The conference came as Maryland and almost all other state governments are wrestling with what some are calling the worst budget crisis since the Great Depression.
Organizers seem to recognize the public relations gaffe of a taxpayer-funded island getaway during lean times: "CSG meeting locations are selected by CSG members years in advance," read a January letter from the group to House Speaker Michael E. Busch. "In light of recent fiscal realities, CSG aggressively attempted to renegotiate our contractual obligations for Spring 2003 but were unable to do so."
More trips lie ahead.
In late July, select lawmakers will travel to San Francisco for a meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures; and in August, the Southern Legislative Conference meets in Fort Worth, Texas.
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller defended the St. Thomas meeting as an important gathering of a "very worthwhile group."
"We discourage people from making a lot of trips," he said. "The need is at home in terms of the decision-making process. We could have sent a whole lot more, but a number of people like myself decided not to go."
While out-of-state trips by politicians never fail to stir public outrage, they represent only a fraction of the tax dollars that go to associations and other groups. State records show that Maryland pays hundreds of thousands of dollars yearly for membership in a variety of associations.
Last year, the state paid $134,600 to the National Governors' Association, and $136,575 to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Rarely is the value of those memberships discussed during budget-cutting season.
Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., too, is earning his frequent-flier miles of late. Fresh off his vacation in the Bahamas, the governor is scheduled to return today from a three-day trip to Las Vegas, where he and Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley received an award from the International Council of Shopping Centers for their role in the Belvedere Square redevelopment.
Ehrlich aides say the council paid for the governor's travel and accommodations. First lady Kendel Ehrlich accompanied her husband, "but they paid out of personal funds," said Ehrlich spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver.
Hoffman leaving Hopkins to lobby in Annapolis
Former Baltimore Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman is leaving her job as director of international programs and special projects for the Johns Hopkins University's Center for Talented Youth, and will become a lobbyist and consultant in Annapolis.
Hoffman is former chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, and lost her re-election bid last year in a district that was drastically altered by redistricting.
She will become a partner with the Artemis Group, a Washington firm that also includes Shaila R. Aery, a former Maryland higher education commissioner.
"We're going to do a lot of higher-ed stuff, and we're going to do general stuff," Hoffman said. "Without the legislature, I felt I could do a whole lot more out on my own. It is more of a challenge, and the opportunity to make more money."
Hoffman is following in the footsteps of her predecessor as budget chairman, former Sen. Laurence Levitan of Montgomery County, who is now a successful State House lobbyist.
Ehrlich's encouragement: set sights lower, Morella
They were once considered the Republican Party's dream ticket in Maryland: Ehrlich and former Rep. Constance A. Morella of Montgomery County. While half the dream ticket won, Morella lost to Democrat Chris Van Hollen in one of the most-watched congressional races in the nation.
So when Ehrlich presented Morella with an award last week from Main Street, a group of moderate Republicans, he urged his former Capitol Hill colleague to set her sights lower and join him in Annapolis.
"I miss you, the state of Maryland misses you, and I need you in the General Assembly," Ehrlich said, according to those present at the ceremony.
Whether Morella accepts the challenge and looks to run for the House of Delegates remains to be seen.
O'Malley, Douglas Duncan make `100 to Watch' list
Two Maryland politicians made the list of "100 New Democrats to Watch" released last week by the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
DLC officials want the nation to keep an eye on Baltimore Mayor Martin O'Malley (who was on the 2000 version of the list) and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.
The list highlights elected officials below the rank of governor who work outside Washington. Former Lt. Gov. Kathleen Kennedy Townsend was on it three years ago.