The Baltimore Sun’s Pamela Wood recently provided details of the state government hospitality tent at last month’s Preakness Stakes, and the public reaction online was predictable. Many thought Gov. Larry Hogan and the other politicians and political appointees who spent $145,500 for food and booze at Pimlico Race Course could have used taxpayer dollars more wisely. And that’s putting it mildly.
“That could go to a lunch fund for school kids that are hungry,” a Facebook poster observed. “How about repairing some roads and putting more officers on the streets?” wrote another. Others writing on social media had similar beefs — not funding the retired state employee drug prescription plan, high taxes and traffic congestion among them. On Twitter, the party was compared to the ransomware used to hijack city computers: costly and parasitic. “Larry again spent my money for a meeting I was never invited to. I guess that is what you do on your way out, taking all you can,” someone named Jack0 tweeted.
Such reactions are understandable, outrage being the currency of social media, but they are also somewhat misplaced. While we can all find areas where government spends too little or too much depending on our own values and priorities, socializing at a major state-sanctioned event like the Preakness has actual benefits. There’s a reason why so many large employers in the Baltimore area do the same. Business gets done at such gatherings, and even if it’s only used to improve dialogue among state officials — or accomplished the even more marginal call of rewarding state employees for a job well done — the returns can easily outweigh the costs.
Where the Hogan administration failed (and later admitted to doing so) was in not allowing reporters to have access to the event. In this respect, government can’t operate like any other business. It’s obligation to be transparent is greater. Governor Hogan and others in government answer to voters. Those are their investors, their board of directors, the shareholders, whatever you want to call them. And reporters supply the means for the public to know what’s going on with their “employees.”
We mention this, in part, to defend a practice that’s been going on for decades but also to make a larger point. Every time government pays for a canape that’s ingested by a state employee or business executive considering moving or expanding here, every time somebody enjoys themselves while in civil service, and every time an elected officials gets free admission to a popular event that would cost the rest of us a pretty penny, we can’t scream corruption. There’s a difference between wooing representatives of Morgan Stanley, Southwest Airlines, Shimadzu Instruments or Floor and Decor and enriching oneself through a questionable self-published, self-serving children’s book. That’s why we have not condemned Baltimore’s use of the mayoral skybox at Orioles Park at Camden Yards but judged harshly former Mayor Catherine Pugh’s “Healthy Holly” debacle. That difference is important.
The hospitality suite deserves scrutiny, of course, as any government-funded initiative does. As The Sun’s reporting notes, the bill came to more than $750 per guest. And when one’s guest list is as heavy on government employees as this one was, you have to wonder if perhaps pigs-in-the-blanket might be a better choice than crab cakes. But then, might that have diminished its value altogether? Might those in a position to add jobs to Tradepoint Atlantic, for example, have skipped the tent altogether if it served neighborhood birthday party fare? Perhaps some day we can quantify the cost and benefits of such calculations. But, at least for the moment, it’s all a bit too nebulous.
But at its core, this business of wining and dining people in a position to forge important business deals is surely as old as business itself. Mr. Hogan was correct to maintain this tradition. Ms. Wood was also correct to shed light on it. And readers are left to form their opinions. This is how a representative democracy keeps checks and balances on government officials. We would simply advise Marylanders that such a practice is neither all good nor all bad. Until there’s an opportunity to better assess the benefits of parties to advance the taxpayers’ interests, a bit of skepticism is probably justified. And it should be leavened with a recognition this isn’t inherently a corrupt practice — it’s marketing, and there’s a difference.