Lobbying ethics study gains support among lawmakers and advocates

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Having grappled with its own ethical standards, the Maryland General Assembly is poised to create a commission to study the ethical standards governing lobbyists.

Skillful advocates have grown so dramatically in number, financial power and influence that some see them as the assembly's "third house" -- a nearly official part of the legislative process.

In a decade, their number has more than doubled. The money spent for lobbyists' fees and entertainment has grown from $7.5 million to $21 million in that same 10 years.

And, occasionally, their relationships with legislators and the public has raised troubling questions -- questions the proposed ethics commission would address.

"This study would enhance the public's confidence in the entire legislative process," said House Speaker Casper R. Taylor at a hearing before the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee. But, he added, "In no way is this meant to indicate there is anything wrong with the ethics of professional lobbyists."

Lobbyists were among the first to endorse the resolution yesterday.

"The vast, overwhelming majority of my colleagues are ethical people," said J. William Pitcher, president of the Maryland Government Relations Association, who welcomed the study. The best practitioners, he said, aim for a balance between the interests of their clients and the public.

John E. O'Donnell, director of the State Ethics Commission, also endorsed the measure. The practice of taking on clients with conflicting interests might be an appropriate matter to investigate, he said.

Various other issues would likely come into the commission's view.

Members of the lobbying corps grumble, for example, that sometimes, unless lobbyists have friends among committee chairmen, one of the two presiding officers or the governor, their clients' interests can be in jeopardy. Others say the importance of such relationships is vastly overstated.

Speaker Taylor's view that lobbyists are not only legitimate but indispensable was endorsed by Kathleen S. Skullney, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, the citizens lobby. "I am a lobbyist, and Common Cause clearly endorses the legitimacy of lobbying," she said.

A study of lobbying, she said, might make it more competitive. Skullney said that out of the hundreds of lobbyists in Annapolis, fewer than 100 are making more than $50,000 a year. The top ten, she said, account for $2 million to $4 million of the annual spending.

Pub Date: 3/18/99

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