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Editorial - A friendly exchange?

July 21, 1997

Lawmakers from 16 states attended the opening of the Southern Legislative Conference this past weekend in Charleston, W.Va. Attendees justified the event's meetings as a way to exchange ideas and said the corporate-sponsored parties were social events that won't affect their votes on future legislation. We suspect they're about half right.

We agree with Maryland state Sen. Jennie Forehand, D-Montgomery, who told The Associated Press that lawmakers are very insulated in their state capitals and need to see how legislators in other states have handled similar issues.

For example, the conference includes a group called the Southern Technology Council, which attempts to make sure that public policy keeps up with emerging technology.

If that sounds like a dry topic more of interest to scientists than the average taxpayer, consider this: As technology makes it possible to conduct electronic banking at a variety of locations what fees are appropriate? Should the state consider this a potential revenue source?

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Land use is another area where it can be useful to see what another state has done. In West Virginia, where officials are trying to stimulate growth, it may be useful to look at the experiences of Maryland, where growth has reached the point where the governor is providing incentives to limit sprawl.

But as valuable as those information exchanges are, it's hard to justify the corporate-sponsored events that go along with them. The best argument in favor of allowing corporations to sponsor receptions and socials like those that accompany such events is that if private firms do it, taxpayers won't have to.

The worst argument in favor of corporate-sponsored hospitality is that it's unlikely that a reception or two will sway a lawmaker when it's time to vote. But those who lobby lawmakers aren't seeking votes as much as they're seeking access, and the chance to affect proposals before it's time to vote on them. It's a subtle process designed to make friends and is harmless only if lawmakers remember why they're being wined and dined, and who they were really elected to serve.

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