ANNAPOLIS – The white marble halls of the State House echo more than usual in the weeks following the final gavel of a General Assembly session.
The wide corridors of the legislative office buildings – typically clogged with lobbyists, citizens, reporters and staff at the height of committee hearing schedules – are virtually deserted since the Assembly adjourned April 12.
As lawmakers and staff skip town at the end of each 90-day session, some quietly return to their day-jobs, while others rack up mileage at taxpayers’ expense to take their legislative work on the road.
By the end of February, the Assembly had spent $176,735 to send 77 lawmakers and a handful of staffers to 20 different legislative conferences across the country, according to a Capital News Service analysis of out-of-state travel records for the 2004 fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The analysis was based on records maintained by the Finance and Administrative Services office of the Department of Legislative Services.
The largest draw for Maryland legislators was the National Conference of State Legislatures’ annual convention in San Francisco for a week in July. The House sent 46 delegates and two legislative staffers, while the Senate sent 15 lawmakers.
The bipartisan NCSL provides networking opportunities and resources for elected members of state governments in all U.S. states and territories. The organization sponsors an annual meeting that draws an average of 5,000 to 7,000 people.
In addition, NCSL lobbies Congress on states’ rights issues.
“If it’s happening somewhere in a statehouse we’ve got information on it,” said NCSL spokesman Bill Wyatt. “(Annual meetings) give members the opportunity to talk to colleagues across the country about what’s worked and what didn’t.”
National conferences also open doors for legislators to interact with other party members, according to Roy T. Meyers, associate professor of political science at the University of Maryland Baltimore County.
“People go to communicate with members of their own party. It’s an opportunity to learn about policy and about differences in the parties,” Meyers said. “They get an opportunity to compare notes. Maryland doesn’t know it all.”
San Francisco alone cost the House $67,811, and the Senate $22,791 – an average of about $1,440 per person – for lodging, meals, mileage, parking and miscellaneous expenses including tips and phone calls. Those totals do not include registration fees for the conference.
Other out-of-state meetings attended by Maryland policymakers included the Southern Legislative Conference in Fort Worth, Texas; the Southern Regional Education Board in Charleston, S.C.; and the Council of State Governments in Pittsburgh.
In Maryland, many of the most traveled legislators head standing committees or hold other leadership positions with organizations sponsoring conferences they attend. Some of the most powerful players in the Assembly have taken the greatest liberties in traveling at the state’s expense.
At the top of the list is the leader of the House committee responsible for killing Gov. Robert Ehrlich’s slot machine proposal for two consecutive years – a delegate who has already been scrutinized for her involvement with gambling interests.
House Ways and Means Chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery, was the biggest spender and most traveled lawmaker this year, spending $7,658 to travel to seven different meetings between May and December 2003.
Hixson attributed her exceptional travel habits to the large number of leadership positions and board memberships she holds. In addition to heading the Ways and Means Committee, Hixson also sits on an NCSL oversight board, and represents the organization at the state level.
“I guess it’s my seniority and leadership position (that) has put me here,” Hixson said.
The 28-year-veteran of Annapolis politics said an average year includes five or six out-of-state trips, but said her attendance at national conferences would most likely decrease in the coming years as her leadership terms expire.
In Maryland, the presiding officers of each chamber appoint the members of the state’s delegation to NCSL, and the organization, in turn, assigns legislators to various committees.
House Health and Government Operations Chairman John A. Hurson, D-Montgomery, came in second overall in terms of spending on out-of-state travel, totaling $4,576 for four conferences. Hurson is also NCSL’s president-elect, a position that demands more travel than most other positions, according to Wyatt.
Compared to their colleagues across the hall, outward-bound senators ran up equally impressive tabs.
Sen. Gloria G. Lawlah, D-Prince George’s, topped the Senate’s list of out-of-state spenders, attending four conferences at a cost of $3,543. Second place went to Montgomery County Democrat Robert J. Garagiola who traveled to two out-of-state meetings, and spent $2,754.
On average, the presiding officers left most of the traveling in both chambers to the movers-and-shakers within the ranks.
House Speaker Michael Busch, D-Anne Arundel, attended only the NCSL conference in San Francisco, and spent a modest $1,583. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, found time for three conferences, and spent a total of $2,459.
Legislators’ out-of-town expenses comprise a fraction of the General Assembly’s $27 million budget. The Senate allocated $86,088 – or about $1,830 per senator – for out-of-state travel in fiscal year 2004, while the House earmarked $174,784 – about $1,240 per delegate.
The out-of-state travel budget has remained constant over the last two years, but lawmakers have spent more to date in 2004 than all of 2003. And while the Assembly has not exceeded its travel budget, out-of-state expenses have come under fire in the last few years in light of the state’s ballooning fiscal woes – projected to hit close to $1 billion in the 2006 fiscal year.
Finance and Administrative Services director George Cutair attributed the variance to increased airfare and registration fees, and declined to estimate an average amount spent on out-of-state travel due to outside price influences.
Neighboring states vary in the way they allocate money for legislators’ out-of-state excursions.
The Delaware General Assembly earmarks $100,000 for all legislative travel — both in- and out-of-state — for its 62 members, according to Controller General Russell Larson. Travel funds are controlled by the state’s Commission on Interstate Cooperation, and all requests for money must be approved by the commission.
Virginia, with a Legislature the size of Maryland’s House of Delegates, budgeted $109,806 in fiscal year 2004 for out-of-state travel for delegates and $244,453 for senators, in fiscal year 2004. To date, the Virginia General Assembly has shelled out $105,454 in out-of-state expenses for its lawmakers.
In addition to specific budget limits, Maryland lawmakers’ out-of-state travel expenditures are regulated by guidelines developed by Finance and Administrative Services. According to the guidelines, jet-setting legislators can be reimbursed $225 per day for lodging and meals.
On rare occasions, the presiding officers of the House and Senate may waive the $225 limit before the travel date, usually for exceptionally expensive metropolitan areas. But without prior approval, lawmakers who exceed their spending limits do so at their own expense, Cutair said.
But spending guidelines can only loosely control politicians’ wallets, and do not restrict interactions among lawmakers and lobbyists.
“Our biggest concern about out-of-state travel is that they can take a vacation from state ethics laws,” said Common Cause Maryland Executive Director James Browning.
Veteran Annapolis lobbyist Bruce Bereano made headlines for his attempts during the NCSL San Francisco conference to rent a 103-foot sailing vessel to take Maryland lawmakers on an afternoon cruise of San Francisco Bay.
The event was eventually canceled, and the client funding the cruise fired Bereano.
“It was nothing out of the ordinary,” Bereano said. “Lobbyists have been entertaining legislators for years.”
But Bereano said he was not planning to host anymore cruises or large entertainment events in the future.