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Whining, dining over $30 meal per diem

JOHN ARNICK says he can't survive on $30 a day for food in Annapolis. You reading this, Dundalk? Your man in the state capital has been bellyaching about a proposed ban on lobbyists buying him meals. Arnick says it's necessary that lobbyists continue to wine and dine him; the $30-a-day food allowance he gets from the state isn't enough.

Poor Johnny Delegate.

If this proposal passes, he might have to sell his new Caddy to make meal money. Or he might end up panhandling along Rowe Boulevard.

Unless, of course, House Bill 478 also becomes law.

That proposal, scheduled for a hearing next week, would ban people from standing on median strips long enough to ask drivers for money. It's a panhandler crackdown bill. Those who violate the new law would be charged with a misdemeanor and, if convicted, fined $500.

Guess who sponsored HB 478?

Poor Johnny Delegate - that's who.

He wants to eradicate those droopy-eyed men and women who stand at intersections and beg for money for food and drink.

But, for himself, he wants to retain the right to be wined and dined by lobbyists in fine Annapolis restaurants.

Poor Johnny is opposed to people asking for handouts but will gladly take them himself. The difference is, he doesn't wear a cardboard sign around his neck. (If he did, it would say, "Will Be Compromised For Food.")

And Michael Collins - he's another one.

You reading this, Essex? Your state senator says $30 a day is "nowhere near enough" for three squares in Annapolis.

Collins wants to keep his options open. Should a lobbyist offer to treat him to a $25 meal, then Collins doesn't want to have to say no. It's impolite.

Besides, it means breaking an old habit. Collins has been mooching for years. He used to gather fellow legislators and some lobbyists for Monday night drinks at the Ram's Head, with the lobbyists picking up the tab, sometimes more than $200, sometimes up to $300. Collins didn't see what all the bother was when the Washington Post ran a story about his cozy relationship with lobbyists.

"No one cares about these things besides the Washington Post and Common Cause," he said. Which, of course, is the wishful and arrogant belief of alot of politicians - that Marylanders see free meals and drinks between lobbyists and legislators as innocent stuff, piffle. Collins, who serves as chairman of the General Assembly's committee on ethics, finds the insinuations insulting - that a legislator's vote on some bill can be bought for a free meal or a free drink.

He's a smart guy, but he misses the point.

The public already believes the relationships between lobbyists and legislators are too cozy. The public already believes that men and women on the inside, who prowl the State House and schmooze delegates and senators, who lunch with them, dine with them, drink with them, party with them, attend their fund-raisers, take them to basketball games, even do business with them - see Fulton, Tony - have the inside track to get favors, if not votes.

A meal here? A drink there? Collins is right - a lobbyist can't buy a vote for a free dinner at O'Learys. But over time, session after session, schmooze after schmooze, bull roast after bull roast, the buffer between legislator and lobbyist disappears and soon the public sees - as it does now - one big, multiheaded, talkin'-to-itself, back-scratchin'-itself blob called the General Assembly.

So I'm for anything that breaks up the blob, anything that makes the lines clearer for those legislators who still don't see what the public sees.

Arnick, for instance. He doesn't see it. Everything is quid pro quo with him. Not only did he bellyache about meal money the other day, but he also complained about a proposed ban on legislators' accepting free tickets to sports events from lobbyists. His argument: The General Assembly approved the funding of baseball and football stadiums in Maryland, so its members should get freebies. "A lot of members thought that since we voted for the stadiums," Arnick said, "there is nothing wrong with coming over to see what they paid for."

They paid for?

Poor Johnny Delegate.

He's been around for a while, but now the reformers are threatening to de-perk him and his buddies. If this keeps up, he might find - sigh - that being a state delegate just isn't fun anymore: Only $30 a day for meals, no free tickets to the Orioles or Terps.

Tell you what, Poor Johnny: If these insulting ethics reforms go through, pull your panhandler bill, HB 478. Kill it. You never know when you might need to take up a cardboard sign and work a median strip for lunch money and box seats. Keep your options open, dude.

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