The assembly's ethics

March 30, 1999

Under pressure to tighten up the rules after two General Assembly members' questionable business dealings cost them their seats during the 1998 session, the Maryland House and Senate have approved separate ethics bills. Now comes the tricky part - reconciling the two into one bill.

To do that, lawmakers must resolve three issues, including:

- whether General Assembly members can ask lobbyists and corporations to contribute to charitable causes,

- whether lawmakers can accept free tickets to collegiate athletic events, and

- under what circumstances lawmakers can be hired to work for state and local governments.

The first two issues seem simple. Asking lobbyists for charitable contributions may not put any cash in a legislator's pocket, but the unspoken message is: Help me out with my favorite charity, and I won't forget it. As for sports tickets, lawmakers ought to buy their own, so that they can remain objective when state colleges come before the legislature seeking funds.


The third issue is more complicated, because while a local government might offer employment in hopes of getting some legislative help, and while a lawmaker might seek a job or consulting arrangement with the implied promise of favors to come, there are other possibilities as well.

For example, if a lawmaker works for a engineering firm, would that firm be prohibited from bidding on state projects even though the member might have no role in approving or disapproving such contracts? Ruling out any involvement, even on the fringes, by state lawmakers, could make it tough to preserve the concept of Maryland's citizen lawmakers, who (ideally) legislate for 90 days, then return to the working world.

To cover such cases, we recommend that the law require lawmakers contemplating a business or consulting relationship with state or local government to run the details past the state's ethics panel. It should quickly become clear whether the deal is a straight business arrangement that coincidentally involves a lawmaker, or an attempt by one or both parties to capitalize on the member's power as a member of the General Assembly.

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