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Editorial - Lawmakers in conflict

February 17, 1998

This week veteran Annapolis correspondent Tom Stuckey wrote an Associated Press news analysis piece which looked at the conflicts that can arise when members of a part-time legislature pursue business interests. It's a subject worth some study by those serious about the quality of government.

Maryland's legislature is set up as a part-time affair, with lawmakers meeting for 90 days each year in Annapolis and presumably holding other jobs when they're not in session. But what happens when the two roles come into conflict?

For state Sen. Larry Young, whose colleagues found his business too closely intertwined with his official duties, the result was the first expulsion from the senate in more than 200 years. For Del. Gerald Curran, who lobbied University of Maryland officials to okay an insurance plan that benefits his business, the outcome is still uncertain.

One way to avoid such problems would be create a full-time legislature, like Pennsylvania has. With no need for outside employment, the theory goes, lawmakers wouldn't stray into questionable areas of conduct.

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But a full-time lawmaker is apt to want to stay in the job, and may avoid taking politically unpopular positions to do so, even when taking such positions is the right thing to do. In Maryland, the argument goes, lawmakers can speak their minds, knowing that if they're defeated, they'll still have a job and a career to go home to.

The other plus for the Maryland system is that by employing real business people as lawmakers, the General Assembly gets real-world input on legislation from people in the professions who must deal with any state laws and regulations they pass.

If Maryland wants to keep this system, its ethics rules must be tightened to keep lawmakers from cashing in on their official roles. Allowing a delegate who owns a trash-hauling business provide input on solid-waste bills is desirable; letting him use his position to squeeze a hauling contract out of a state agency isn't. Those who can't live with that sort of ethical distinction need to return to private life.

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