Shame on the Senate


Maryland's state senators are having a tough time adapting to the ethics requirements of the 1990s. They'd rather flout their coziness with lobbyists and their arrogant hold on $8 million in college scholarships than embrace reforms. They don't mind shaming themselves before the public if they can retain these perks.

That's precisely what happened in the State House this past General Assembly session. While the House was dutifully mending its ways by approving bills to abolish legislative scholarships and erect barriers between lobbyists and lawmakers, the Senate was headed in the opposite direction. Senators like the current system, thank you.

But the public doesn't. That message was delivered loudly and clearly at the polls last year. Yet returning senators weren't listening. They may have pledged on the campaign trail to end political scholarships and improve ethics in the State House, but these solons of solicitude suddenly developed a case of amnesia after they were safely ensconced in office for another four years.

Senators did make a pretense of approving bills to end lobbyists' excesses, but they so watered down these measures that calling this effort a "reform" is a joke. Instead of banning free meals and drinks and sports tickets from lobbyists, senators merely slapped a reporting requirement on lobbyists to disclose who got what, for how much and how often. Meals under $15 and tickets under $15 won't be revealed at all.

It's a disgrace. The less honorable lobbyists will circumvent the new laws with ease. Crafty ones will evade the disclosure requirements through creative accounting. Nothing really has changed: On the last day of the session, as the weakened ethics bills were being approved, lawmakers happily noshed on $250 worth of lox and bagels -- provided to them, for free, by grateful lobbyists.

That's also the case on scholarships, where Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and his cohorts never wanted to change things. They used the legislative system to make sure they were on record for weak reform, then set it up so the reform efforts failed -- and the $8 million in annual political perks remained in their hands.

Shame on them.

Mr. Miller & Co. may have dodged the ethics bullet again, but the public won't let them off the hook. The image of legislators beholden to fat-cat lobbyists who wine, dine and entertain them in grand style will persist. The image of senators lavishing political allies and relatives with scholarship money will persist. No wonder the public looks down on state legislators with such distain. Maryland's senators, in particular, have earned it.

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