ANNAPOLIS – Today, the only way to find out how much lobbyists spend wining and dining legislators and other officials is to visit the State Ethics Commission in Towson.
By the end of the summer, however, it may be as simple as turning on your computer.
The registration forms on file at the commission list lobbyists’ employers and compensation, as well as their expenses. Last year, more than 500 lobbyists filed almost 1,500 such forms, according to Executive Director John O’Donnell.
O’Donnell said last week that he would like to have a remote-access version of this data up and running by Labor Day.
But O’Donnell said he has “no current intention” of putting the 8,000-10,000 financial disclosure forms the commission collects on line as well.
The latest such financial disclosure forms provided the information used by Capital News Service to analyze gifts that 118 lawmakers received during 1994.
O’Donnell called on-line access to financial disclosure forms “a much more dicey public policy issue,” and an “Orwellian issue.”
“There are a lot of people out there who don’t cotton” to the idea, “and possibly for good reason,” he said.
“Some people have a very strong sense of privacy. It doesn’t mean they’ve done anything wrong. They just don’t want their next-door neighbor to know what they had for dinner last night.”
O’Donnell also cited a law that requires anyone who wants to examine financial disclosure forms to provide his or her name and address, so that people can see who has looked at their files.
Gov. Parris N. Glendening said Thursday that he supports putting information collected by the Ethics Commission on line.
“As much information as we have should be readily available to the public,” he said, and putting it on line is the “most common-sense way to do it.”
“If the public has a right to information…then we ought to make that information conveniently available,” he said.
When information isn’t on line, Glendening said, “quite candidly, it means it’s less accessible.”
O’Donnell said it may not be possible to sift and sort the data on lobbyists even when it’s on line.
“Our intention right now is to allow people to have access to the documents without physically coming here,” he said.
Glendening, however, pointed out that “data are only useful as they are readily available for people to…sort through… [and] pull out any combination that you want.”
The governor added that, within limits, he favors putting the financial disclosure information on line as well.
“To the extent that that is available to the public right now, it ought to be available to the public on line as well,” he said.
Common Cause of Maryland Executive Director Deborah Povich, a lobbyist herself, applauded O’Donnell’s decision to put the lobbying information on line.
“This is appropriate and timely,” she said, “and we hope the Board of Elections follows suit soon.”
The Board of Elections Laws keeps information on campaign contributions.
Povich said the Ethics Commission may be able to tap a $1 million information technology fund approved in the recent legislative session. “If money is the problem, now there is some out there,” Povich said. -30-