Ethics issues take a toll At halfway point, state lawmakers face an overflow of issues; 'The session begins now'; Ethical concerns have overshadowed key legislation

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Halfway through their 90-day legislative session, Maryland lawmakers are hoping they can finally escape the glare of scandal and devote all their attention to the people's business.

Having endured 45 days of embarrassing disclosures about the alleged ethical lapses of two key committee chairmen -- and their subsequent departures -- the General Assembly must deal quickly with an overflowing hopper of ambitious new programs.

The menu includes an accelerated income-tax cut proposal, a bill to provide health insurance for children of the working poor, decisions about how the state's growing budget surplus will be used, and regulations meant to avoid another summer of fish lesions and closed rivers caused by Pfiesteria.

"In all honesty," said Del. John Adams Hurson, the House majority leader, "we have been significantly diverted from legislative concerns. We are preceding less quickly than we usually do."

Said his Republican counterpart, Del. Robert H. Kittleman: "The session begins now."

When they This line is longer than measure/can't be broken arrived in Annapolis on Jan. 14, Assembly leaders moved quickly to investigate reports that former Sen. Larry Young had violated ethics rules, hoping to put unpleasantness behind them. They surprised many by quickly meting out the most severe punishment -- expulsion.

That action was followed by a report that a House committee chairman, Gerald J. Curran, had blurred the lines between his legislative office and his professional life, giving himself lucrative business opportunities. That investigation led to Curran's resignation Friday.

But even now the ethical concerns have not subsided.

According to the Washington Post, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. used undue pressure to help a friend in Cumberland win a sweetheart land deal. Taylor vehemently denies doing anything beyond his usual efforts to assist constituents.

While many in and out of the State House have applauded the forced housecleaning, others fear that a heightened scrutiny will paralyze the Assembly. Some are calling it a "media frenzy." Others say it is the inevitable outcome of years in which legislators did not take sufficient care to avoid a collision between their public and private lives.

"It seems as if everybody's under the microscope," said Del. James F. Ports Jr., a Baltimore County Republican. "It's pretty depressing in the House and the Senate."

No one in the governmental community has gone unaffected.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening has been obliged to spend time dealing with the downfall of his political ally Young and has been left hoping that his election-year legislative package will eventually get the attention he feels it deserves.

'Very optimistic'

Glendening spokesman Ray Feldmann said the governor is "very optimistic" that his proposals will be enacted. "The package is moving forward despite the distractions." Legislative leaders agreed, predicting that many of the bills will emerge from the shadows as the session continues.

But the extraordinary drama surrounding Young and Curran has been irresistible grist for Republicans. Even without the problems of the Democrats, the GOP made clear from the beginning that it saw the 1998 Assembly session as a 90-day opportunity to create issues for this year's legislative and gubernatorial elections.

"There is a responsibility to prioritize," said Del. Robert L. Flanagan, a Howard Republican. "You can't have everything. You can't promise everything to everybody."

But it remains unclear when the governor's promises will come into unobstructed view.

Hours before Curran gave his departing speech, House members read the article in which Taylor was reported to have pressured an appraiser to come up with a price favorable to his friend. Taylor categorically denied that, saying he had merely urged the appraiser to move more quickly.

He rejected the necessity for yet another ethics probe -- of himself this time. Perhaps as a measure of the Assembly's scandal fatigue, Taylor drew immediate support from Republican leader Kittleman, who said the speaker had provided "outstanding" leadership for those seeking tighter, clearer laws on ethics and campaign fund raising.

As for the impact of all this on the Assembly's work, Taylor insisted his committees are moving important pieces of legislation. But Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said the upheaval had taken an inevitable toll.

"It's kept the speaker and I from focusing on key issues that need to be dealt with," he said. One of the issues that has been shortchanged so far, he said, is electric utility deregulation, an "extremely complex issue on which the sides are miles apart."

Said Del. D. Bruce Poole, a Washington County Democrat: "We have not had substantive debates, so we get into partisan debates."

Republicans and Democrats have engaged in transparently political actions. For example, Democrats are trying to give the Assembly more control over the redrawing of district lines after the 2000 census -- lest that highly political chore fall to a Republican governor after this year's election.

"Partisanship is definitely rising," said Poole. "It's a sign of the times."

The struggle to put ethics questions aside could not have been more vividly illustrated than in the House of Delegates on Friday afternoon. Environmental Matters Committee Chairman Ron Guns offered a lengthy and detailed introduction to the science of controlling Pfiesteria -- but the delegates almost certainly were waiting to hear the last floor speech of their colleague Curran.

The 32-year Assembly veteran was said to have aggressively lobbied state officials to approve an insurance program for which he ultimately served as the broker. The deal could net him tens of thousands of dollars in commissions.

He also entered potentially lucrative arrangements with state offices and private enterprises with issues before the legislature but did not disclose the potential conflict of interest.

Some of his colleagues and a number of lobbyists who appear before the Assembly asked bitterly what Curran had done wrong. After Curran said he would resign, the ethics committee decided not to pursue the matter -- hoping to return to legislating, but missing an opportunity to say what it thought was wrong in what Curran did, if anything.

'The missing link'

This week, Taylor is expected to propose a change that would supply what he called "the missing link" between a sound framework of ethics laws for the legislature and a means of enforcing it. More than on any other issue this year, legislators say they have searched for a bright line between their legislative and professional lives.

"Everyone's on a battlefield and wondering who's going down next," said Del. Richard La Vay, a Montgomery County Republican.

Others believe the Assembly was in danger of accepting an unrealistic standard.

"Is there an idealized bubble we can go to, to make laws?" asked Karl K. Pence, the Maryland State Teachers Association president. Pence spoke outside a House committee room last week as he waited to testify on a bill that would increase pension benefits for teachers and state employees. Lack of attention has not hurt the bill's prospects, he said -- perhaps, quite the contrary. With the economy continuing to improve, he said, the idea gains currency that the state must improve what some say is the nation's worst pension system.

"The only regret I have," he said, "is that we didn't ask for more."

But frustration with the session's progress was not difficult to find.

Del. Tony E. Fulton, a Baltimore Democrat, was only one of those who blamed the news media for the slow pace -- not unlike Curran, who in his resignation referred to news reports triggering the investigations as "the current media frenzy."

Fulton wondered whether competing news organizations were engaged in a game of "one-upmanship" at legislators' expense. "This has not been a good legislative session, and it won't be until we get to the business of Maryland," he said. "We're preoccupied with ethics."

Unfinished business

These are some of the issues that remain to be decided by Maryland lawmakers before the General Assembly session ends April 13:

BUDGET -- Gov. Parris N. Glendening's $16.5 billion budget proposal includes several ambitious new programs. It includes $64 million in new spending for colleges and universities, $60 million more for K-12 education and $222 million to build and renovate schools. Budget committees have yet to begin voting on the spending plan.

TAXES -- The governor and key senators want to speed up the five-year, 10 percent income tax cut that took effect Jan. 1. A Senate proposal would double the cut for 1998 from 2 percent to 4 percent, which would mean another $52 in tax savings for a family of four earning $40,000. House leaders prefer a one-time reduction in the state property tax.

CHILD HEALTH -- The Senate has approved the governor's plan to provide government-financed health insurance to nearly 60,000 children and pregnant women from working families. It would cost the state nearly $30 million next year. House leaders also want to expand health coverage but favor a different approach.

PFIESTERIA -- A Senate committee has approved Glendening's bill to require farmers to adopt runoff-control plans in an effort to prevent outbreaks of toxic Pfiesteria in Maryland waters. A House panel has approved a rival bill that is favored by farmers and opposed by environmentalists.

PENSIONS -- House and Senate committees are considering Glendening-backed proposal to boost retirement benefits for state workers and teachers. The plan would cost the state $2.2 billion over roughly 30 years, while requiring workers to contribute to their pensions for the first time. Some lawmakers are pushing less costly alternatives.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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