By Ana Alaya and Russell Arrington
ANNAPOLIS – Among the ethics bills passed in the final hours of the 1995 legislative session was a measure tightening rules for trips lawmakers take at the expense of special interest groups.
The bill, which Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign into law, requires lawmakers to notify the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics before they go on a lobbyist-sponsored trip worth more than $500.
The goal is prevention, said John O’Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission.
“If there’s something they see about the trip they don’t like they can get involved in it before it happens,” he said.
The rule is one of several reforms aimed at breaking down what some critics say is a too-cozy relationship between lobbyists and lawmakers.
The original bill would have required the committee to approve trips of more than $500. Opponents argued that requiring approval, versus notification, would complicate short-notice trips.
Advocates of lobbying reform viewed the final version as a step in the right direction.
“This might help assure that the law is being observed, at least for the more expensive trips,” said Deborah Povich, executive director of Maryland Common Cause.
According to law, legislators must report gifts from people doing business with the state, regulated by the state or registered as lobbyists.
The ethics law stipulates certain gifts lawmakers can accept from such groups, including reasonable expenses for food, travel, lodging or scheduled entertainment, in return for participation on a panel or speaking engagement.
“The general rule is, no speak, no eat,” said Del. Kenneth C. Montague Jr., D-Baltimore, chairman of the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics. “There are a lot of things we need to deal with in terms of reporting.”
One problem, he explained, is that sometimes there are worthwhile conferences but no opportunities for a legislator to participate. “We don’t want to inhibit a legislator from learning about their jobs,” he said.
The most recent records at the ethics commission show that Maryland legislators received 73 special interest trips worth a combined $78,000 during 1992 and 1993. Many of those trips were related to legislative matters and educational, health and environmental issues.
“You can see many of the trips are regarding legitimate public issues. Some promote a dialogue between legislators and particular interest groups,” Povich said.
But Povich and other reform advocates keep pushing for tough ethics laws designed to make sure lawmakers are not unfairly influenced by special interest groups.
“We find people going on trips to the Bahamas, Israel, England and other places,” Povich said. “I think it’s important for public integrity that elected officials only accept trips when they are legitimately giving a speech to a group and not just taking a vacation.”
Currently, legislators do not have to include the speech or panel in question when they disclose a trip, something Common Cause has requested. “We were turned down on that,” Povich said.
Said Montague: “Everything is on the honor system.” He added that most legislators already call about questionable trips.
O’Donnell noted that in the past, the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics or the ethics commission has said “no” to certain trips.
“Where there have been either procurement in process or maybe regulatory disputes in process it seemed like it was the wrong time,” he said. “It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally it looks like it isn’t really a speaking engagement or a panel at all.”
The commission also checks the reasonableness of a trip. “We look at things like, if you’re flying first class, staying in the penthouse…we look at the total circumstances,” O’Donnell said.
O’Donnell said Maryland’s lobbying rules have become tighter and tighter over the last 20 years. “I call it the ever-tightening noose. They put in a little change here, a little change there. It’s like a snail – you don’t see it moving very much unless you look back.” -30-