Lobbying bills are weakened


Reluctant to end their perks of office, the Maryland Senate voted yesterday to weaken bills aimed at distancing lawmakers from lobbyists and their freebies.

Senators gutted a measure that would have prohibited them from accepting free tickets to sports events and concerts from lobbyists.

They then watered down another bill requiring lobbyists to reveal the names of legislators who accept their free meals and drinks.

"The Senate has just put their petty self-interest above the public interest and, unfortunately, the whole body will be painted with that brush," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a public interest group.

But several senators said they resented the premise behind the bills -- namely, that they could be bought by a free ticket or meal.

"The perception is that if we take tickets to ballgames or receive gifts or are friends with [lobbyists], we've down something wrong," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat, during a debate yesterday.

With the clock ticking down on the 1995 session, the fate of the two bills remains uncertain. The House of Delegates may not accept all the Senate changes, and negotiators would have to work out a compromise before the legislature adjourns tomorrow night.

Pushed largely by the House, the bills are part of a larger package that sought to tackle the perception than lawmakers are too cozy with lobbyists. Whether accurate or not, some legislators said, that perception is fueled by the free meals, gifts and tickets that lobbyists lavish upon them while trying to win their votes.

The reforms were spurred by the November election, in which newcomers pledging reform made gains in the General Assembly. That same month, the mail fraud trial of mega-lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano shone a spotlight on the tangled relationships in Annapolis.

Bereano, a frequent gift-giver who reigned as Annapolis' most successful lobbyist, was convicted of charging clients for illegal campaign contributions to politicians.

Yesterday, some senators criticized the reform efforts.

The bill that would separate legislators from their free sport tickets provoked the most indignant responses. As passed by the House, it simply would have required lawmakers to pay their own way when going to ballgames and concerts with lobbyists.

Led by Sen. Barbara A. Hoffman, a Baltimore Democrat, the Senate voted 25-21 to include a loophole for legislators claiming personal relationships with lobbyists. As amended, lawmakers could accept tickets from lobbyists if they are social friends and they do not discuss business.

Ms. Hoffman said she did not want to be prohibited from socializing with a longtime friend who works for an organization that has a lobbyist.

"When you look at this amendment it guts the bill," said Sen. Brian E.Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat. "It opens the door to every lobbyist taking every legislator to a ballgame."

The second measure would require lobbyists to reveal the names of legislators they wine and dine, as well as the cost of the meals.

As passed by the House, the legislation would require that all such meals be disclosed, no matter the cost. It was amended in the Senate yesterday to require disclosure only of food and beverages costing $15 or more.

The Senate bill still would require far more reporting than under current law, which allows the vast majority of legislators entertained by lobbyists to remain anonymous.

Senators approved a third bill yesterday without major amendment. It would prohibit legislators from accepting nonfood gifts worth more than $15 from lobbyists.

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