lawmakers debate ethics proposal

February 05, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - When Sen. Donald F. Munson was first elected 25 years ago, he chose to quit his job as a public school teacher in part because of potential conflicts of interest.

He would have been forced to quit under stricter ethics rules being debated by the Maryland General Assembly this year.

Some local lawmakers say the recommendations go too far and chip away at Maryland's tradition of a part-time citizen legislature.

Others say the reforms uphold behavior that the public expects.

Either way, legislators agree they are likely to approve tougher ethics rules.

"The public has a right to expect the votes of legislators are untainted," said Munson, R-Washington, a member of the Maryland Ethics Commission.

The proposal would make changes in several areas.

It would ban the traditional one-on-one entertainment of legislators by lobbyists. Lobbyists could still hold receptions for groups of legislators.

It would forbid lawmakers from voting on any legislation in which they have a direct, personal interest.


Lawmakers couldn't work for state or local governments unless they held the public job before being elected to the legislature.

Munson said he was prepared to quit teaching because he knew that, as a senator, he would vote on issues affecting schools. He also thought voters expected him to be a full-time legislator.

Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, finds the ban troubling.

"You don't want legislators to come as a blank slate. You want them to come with connections," she said.

Most lawmakers need to hold down jobs outside of the 90-day legislative session, she said.

Hecht doesn't understand why the proposed law would allow lawmakers to be lawyers, arguing cases before state-appointed judges, but not social workers or nurses.

When she was executive director for Heartly House, Hecht disclosed any possible conflicts of interest that arose because the Frederick, Md., women's shelter received state and federal grants.

If she hadn't since given up that job, under the proposed rules she would have been unable to vote on anything that directly affected the organization.

Details of the ethics rules will be hashed out in the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, on which Dels. Christopher B. Shank and Louise V. Snodgrass sit.

Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington, said she objects to banning the traditional one-on-one entertainment of legislators by lobbyists.

"Who's going to buy my vote for lunch or dinner? I find that rather demeaning," she said.

But Shank, R-Washington, said he likes the ban on meals.

"The people of Washington County did not send me down here to have meals with lobbyists," he said. "I don't think it's going to solve everything, but I think it makes sense."

The ethics legislation is backed by some powerful lawmakers, including House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.

The task force that drafted the legislation, headed by Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, D-Md., was set up after two Democratic members of the legislature from Baltimore left after scandals last year.

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