Harford lobbyist arrangement an unsavory problem [Editorial]

That Harford County government has to retain a lobbying firm to build relationships and advance the county's cause in state government is reason for voters to take pause and be concerned.

It would be easy to blame Harford County's lackluster elected representation in the Maryland General Assembly for allowing a situation wherein the county feels it needs, as the county executive's chief of staff put it, "an extra set of hands in Annapolis." Collectively, the local delegates and senators deserve a share of blame. It's been pretty clear for years that they're more concerned with making their positions known on high-profile issues than in securing the county its share of state revenue. This doesn't, however, reflect the whole of the problem.

Similarly, blaming the county executive's cabinet and other high level, highly-paid county employees for their inability to effectively plead the local case to the powers that be in the state capital would be an accurate, but incomplete, characterization of the problem.

The strange reality of state politics in Maryland is that what is supposed to be a part-time citizen legislature has, over a span of a few decades, devolved into a full-time operation with an entrenched supporting bureaucracy.

Aaron Tomarchio, the Harford County executive's chief of staff, gave a measure of insight into the issue when, in describing the county's need to retain a lobbying firm at $43,090 a year, he said: "... people who have relationships where we don't normally have relationships, that has helped get our needs met."

Nominally, the Maryland General Assembly's delegates and senators are paid a part-time wage, but their annual state government salaries are well in excess of $40,000 a year. Furthermore, if they manage to stay in office for 16 years – or four terms – they become eligible for state pension benefits.

That amounts to a before-taxes pay rate in the range of $800 a week, which is pretty darn good for part-time work.

The reason the part-time facade is able to retain a venire of plausibility is because the General Assembly is in session for 90 days from early January to the first week of April. The 90-day session, however, belies a year-round machine that includes such things as "summer study" for certain bills that have languished in the previous session and a legislative drafting process that never really comes to an end.

In theory, the Maryland General Assembly is a 90-day session where part-time citizen legislators convene to tackle the issues of the day after spending the other 275 days of the year being in touch with the realities of everyday life. In practice, it's a year-round operation that exists in a reality largely of its own making, a reality that's easily disconnected from the situation outside the state office buildings in the capital city.

Trying to wheedle Harford County's fair share out of such an operation probably does take buying into a business whose sole function is to forge relationships with key personnel – elected and on staff – in the capital complex.

Unfortunately, it probably takes a creature of the lobby to effectively deal with the creatures of committee and bureaucracy. That's a problem that's hard to solve, and, as a result, the $43,090 Harford County is spending each year to deal with it now is likely to increase substantially in years to come.

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