In Annapolis, good times roll

The Baltimore Sun

The public works director in Annapolis ought to investigate what substance has infiltrated the city's drinking water supply that caused so many to so easily lose their sense of propriety. Little else could explain how lawmakers in the state capital rarely comprehend how their behavior might seem if not downright unethical then at least ethically challenged.

As our colleagues at The Washington Post recently reported, the House of Delegates' Ways and Means Committee held an "invitation only" St. Patrick's Day party at its offices organized and paid for by Ocean Downs Racetrack and the Maryland Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association. How charming. A special-interest group that stands to reap millions through pending legislation (one bill before the committee would put more slots money into track purses) can use the committee hearing room for a $4,683 kegger.

Meanwhile, as The Baltimore Sun's Laura Smitherman and Gadi Dechter reported on Sunday, lawmakers haven't lost their taste for pork in the capital budget - about $15 million worth, to be precise - despite the economic downturn. And it matters not a bit to many of these legislators that they serve on the boards of some of the nonprofits that stand to benefit from this largesse - or that they employ lawmakers' relatives, in some cases.

Politicians and lobbyists will defend these practices as reasonable and perhaps even in the public interest. Receptions give a chance for General Assembly members to learn more about important issues from - pardon the pun - the horse's mouth without the formality of a hearing. Capital grants generally go to useful projects such as a museum, homeless shelter or food bank, and no lawmaker gets rich by serving as a volunteer for a charity.All that may be true, but there's a right way and a wrong way to deal with both. In the case of receptions, they ought not be in state offices unless it's the staff's potluck dinner. House Speaker Michael E. Busch apparently agrees and has promised to ban the practice.

In the case of capital budget pork, this might have been a good year to forgo it entirely, as House Minority Leader Anthony J. O'Donnell contends. But given that many worthy nonprofits are dealing with growing needs and shrinking donations, the best solution would be for lawmakers to recuse themselves from matters where a conflict of interest exists. Serving on an organization's board would appear to be a fairly obvious one.

As we've said before, politicians rarely go wrong if they follow two simple rules: disclose, disclose, disclose potential conflicts and recuse, recuse, recuse when such matters come up for a vote. But until somebody figures out why legislators don't get this simple concept - whether it's something in the drinking water or too much Ways and Means punch - expect the lack of good judgment to continue.

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