Editorial: Lobbyist transparency is good, but could always be better

We're glad to see Maryland getting high marks for its lobbying disclosure requirements from The Sunlight Foundation, a national nonprofit that advocates for accountable and transparent government. However, it's a bit disappointing to see so many Carroll legislators, state officials and lobbyists say that improving in the areas in which The Sunlight Foundation thought Maryland came up short would be "burdensome," and that there was no need for changes because we're already in "pretty good shape."

Maryland received a "B" grade and 3 points out of a possible 6. Seven states scored an "A," with 4 to 6 points.


First, let's focus on the good. Maryland received the maximum points for expenditure transparency, which means that lobbyists are required to itemize all expenses associated with their work, including travel, hosting an event and buying gifts for lawmakers. Maryland has no threshold for expense reporting, which means no matter how small it is, it will show up on the report. This is good, as it keeps lobbyists from nickel-and-diming legislators under the radar.

The Sunlight Foundation also awarded 1 out of a possible 2 points for document accessibility, and while that's not bad, that's also where we think improvements could be made to the system, even if legislators and state officials disagree.

"We have a pretty good array of information on our website," Michael Lord, executive director of the Maryland State Ethics Commission, told us.

He's right, there is a lot of information on the website. It's finding it that's the trick.

Unless you know a lobbyist's name or the company they are working for, visiting Maryland's website is essentially a fishing expedition. Plug in a topic such as health, and you'll get additional suggestions like "healthcare," "health/nutrition" and "health-related," along with various misspellings ("healthl" and "healcare" to name a few) that make you wonder if you're getting everything you want. And when you do search "health," you'll get more than 45 pages of (unsortable) documentation, and that's just for the reporting year that began Nov. 1.

Once you track down something you're interested in, the documentation only shows broad topics the lobbyist is involved with — most of which you probably could've figured out from their client — and not specific bills, or perhaps more importantly, the lobbyist's position on those bills. In other words, the answers to the questions the public is asking when it seeks out information on lobbyists.

Some Carroll legislators and lobbyists wondered how practical it would be to provide this information when lobbyists monitor hundreds of bills each session, even if they only lobby for a few. But it seems to us if they are organized enough to monitor so much, it should be pretty simple to put on paper a list of those bills, their position on each and how much they spent related to a specific bill, if applicable.

Other states, such as those that received perfect scores from The Sunlight Foundation, have achieved this. Visit Massachusetts' website for lobbying disclosures for example, and you can easily narrow down reports by a predetermined and finite list of topics, and within a few clicks, know which bills specific lobbyists took a position on.

Maryland officials and lawmakers should be happy with their "B" grade, but not content, especially when it comes to transparency about who is trying to influence law. Other states have shown this level of openness can be achieved, and Maryland shouldn't settle for "pretty good."