ANNAPOLIS – Is there a difference between a $25 dollar meal and a $25 gift?
Yes, some lobbyists told the House Commerce and Governmental Matters Committee, which Tuesday heard several bills to limit what lawmakers may accept.
Champe McCullogh, president of the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, said meals provide opportunities for special interests to educate legislators.
“Meals, [among] business people, are the normal medium of exchange,” he said. “They are an opportunity for a lengthy discussion of issues and how they affect people.”
Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore, has sponsored a bill banning lobbyist-paid meals unless at least 25 lawmakers are invited.
“When lobbyists can buy access through providing meals, the general public see themselves at a disadvantage,” Montague said. “This measure would still allow lobbyists to talk with legislators and exchange information.”
Montague’s bill also would prohibit legislators from receiving tickets to professional sporting events.
“The problem with sports tickets is that they lead to two to three hours when a legislator is in the sole possession of the person who bought the ticket,” Montague said. “This can lead to abuse.”
Lobbyists spend more than $800,000 annually on gifts to officials, half of that on meals, said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause, the nonprofit government watchdog group. If the amount were distributed evenly among General Assembly members, each legislator would receive $4,000 in gifts each year.
Diana Vincent of the Maryland State Teachers Association said her organization would support an outright ban on gifts other than meals.
“We recognize lobbyists perform and important educational function,” she said. “Meals provide an opportunity to carry out that function.”
But Del. John Morgan, R-Howard, went one step further, advocating his bill to ban all gifts including meals.
Without a total ban, the Legislature opens the door to tricky regulations and confusion, Morgan said. “My philosophy is we need as bright a line as we can possible find, ” he said. “Any time you get away from that bright line … you complicate the process.” -30-