Lobbyists losing their easy access to state offices


Button your Burberry topcoats and cover your Kate Spade bags, lobbyists of Annapolis: Your privileged, rapid access to state government buildings is about to end.

The entrance line forms outside the State House door. And take care: It can get chilly and wet out there.

In the name of greater security, Maryland officials are starting a new identification system for the state office complex in Annapolis that will make it more selective.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and his staff are getting new badges, as are members of the General Assembly and state employees who use the Lowe House Office Building, the Miller Senate Office Building and other facilities. Even journalists on assignment in Annapolis get entrance passes.

But security officials have decided that the capital lobbying corps - which includes many former legislators and at least 30 lobbyists who earn more than $200,000 a year in fees trading on their knowledge of and access to lawmakers - won't make the cut.

Starting Jan. 1, lobbyists will no longer be able to use the specialized ID cards they now carry to cruise past Department of General Services police officers and metal detectors at the entrances to most state buildings. The cards enable their holders to bypass the frequently long lines of people waiting to attend legislative hearings.

Lobbyists will soon be standing outside like everyone else, emptying their pockets into plastic bins, removing their Rolexes and affixing paper "visitor" stickers to their lapels.

"Holy smokes," said Casper R. Taylor Jr., the former House speaker who lost his re-election bid in 2002 and has become a hired gun, when informed of the new rules by a reporter. "We'll just have to live with it, I guess."

Taylor said he won't pull strings to try to get a new card, even though the change means he will be forced to queue up outside a building where an annex under construction will bear his name.

"I don't want to be treated differently than anybody else," he said.

Others were more upset.

"If they are going to make it that difficult for people who work in the building every single day, it makes me want to cry," said Robin F. Shaivitz, whose $563,000 in earnings made her the state's seventh-highest-paid lobbyist last year, according to state ethics commission data. "I'll have to retire."

Officials said they decided to rescind access privileges to lobbyists because there were few controls over who asked for and who got the cards. The decision was made by a group that included representatives of the legislature's presiding officers and the executive branch.

"There is no criterion on who can be a lobbyist, so we don't know who the individuals are," said Warner I. Sumpter, chief of the general services police force, which guards state facilities.

A letter from Sumpter regarding the new system, which is being distributed this week, asks lobbyists to return their current ID cards as soon as possible.

Ehrlich was made aware of the ruling and endorsed it, said his spokeswoman Shareese N. DeLeaver. General Services officials said the decision is final.

But there might be no group better equipped to try to change the policy, which is what Bruce C. Bereano, one of the capital's most recognizable lobbyists, promised to do.

"I'm aggravated. It makes no sense," Bereano said. "It's grossly unfair to discriminate against private lobbyists. Our actions on behalf of private citizens is part of the democratic process. Why should we be singled out?"

Because lobbyists are licensed and regulated by the state ethics commission, they have cleared a government screening checkpoint, Bereano said.

This year, Maryland has 755 lobbyists registered. But the General Services Department had issued more than 1,500 badges in the lobbyist category since 2000 because its office staffers, interns and others were able to obtain them. A fraction of those badges are active, said Dave Humphrey, a spokesman for the department.

"In the past, there has been a surge of lobbyist registrations because of the fast-pass effect," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/MD, a campaign finance watchdog group.

Browning, too, will be losing his identification card, but he didn't seem to mind.

"In some ways, it's more democratic, and it means everyone will be stuck in line instead of the sharks swimming in," he said.

Lobbyists note that they often face time constraints during the 90-day legislative session (the next one will begin Jan 12). Hearings are often scheduled at the same time, and the lobbyists must usher clients from one room to another.

Because of that, many will probably try to cut in line, said W. Minor Carter, a longtime State House lobbyist who envisions tension when a person in a sharply tailored Saville Row suit tries to edge in front of two dozen union members waiting to enter the Lowe House Office Building for a hearing on employee health costs.

"The public is going to say, 'Who are those people being rude?'" Carter said. "And it's unfortunate that there are times you are going to have to be rude to do your job."

The new ID badges are being issued after problems were identified with the current system, which has been used since 2000 and became more widely used after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

A state audit released in October found indications that state workers had created and sold phony Maryland government identification cards and misappropriated related cash collections in the Department of General Services.

In May last year, the audit office received a report through its fraud hot line about fictitious cards being issued to unauthorized people. The cards let holders bypass metal detectors at most state buildings and, in many cases, to ride free on buses and the Metro system in the city, state officials said.

State officials estimate that about 75,000 people - employees, contractors, lawmakers and others - will get the new cards.

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