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Legislators spurn free Preakness tickets

May 17, 2000|By LAURA ERNDE

Washington County's lawmakers have turned down taxpayer-funded tickets to Saturday's Preakness race, some saying it's an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.

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A new ethics law bars Maryland General Assembly members from accepting free Preakness tickets from Pimlico Race Course. Maryland Gov. Parris Glendening offered to foot the bill for a Preakness party, citing the event as an important opportunity to market the state to business leaders.

Glendening invited all 188 state lawmakers to spend the day in the state's hospitality tent, which will feature an open bar and a buffet serving roast beef and crab cakes. About 2,000 people are expected to attend.

"I think it's very inappropriate the governor would do this. If legislators want to go they should do it on the same basis as the general public does and pay for the tickets," said Sen. Donald F. Munson, R-Washington.

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Munson said he paid his own way to the race in 1963, but he has not been to the Preakness in his 26 years in office.

He said he routinely declines freebies he is offered because of his status as a state lawmaker.

Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington, said she went to the Preakness shortly after she took office in 1995 because racing is an important industry in the state and she had never been to the races. But she doesn't plan to go this year.

"I don't know if it's inappropriate, because he is the governor and he has the power," she said.

She said she thought taxpayers might be upset that Glendening had money for a Preakness party, but not tax relief.

Del. Robert A. McKee said his legislative committee, which regulates racing, said he gets information about the industry at site visits his committee makes throughout the year.

"The state pays us well enough that if we want to go to those type of events we can pay for our own tickets," said McKee, R-Washington.

Del. John P. Donoghue, D-Washington, said he would also pay his own way if he ever had an interest in attending the event. But he said he didn't know enough about the situation to say whether it was an inappropriate use of taxpayer money.

"I don't think it's an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars to fund a party like that," said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Shank said he hopes the controversy won't be used as an excuse to change the ethics law, which was intended to stop special interest groups from giving perks to lawmakers.

"It's kind of ridiculous they pass ethics laws and subvert it by letting the governor pay," said Sen. Alex X. Mooney, R-Frederick/Washington.

Del. Sue Hecht, D-Frederick/Washington, was out of town Wednesday and could not be reached for comment. Her legislative aide said Hecht would not be going to the Preakness.

Del. Joseph R. Bartlett also could not be reached for comment, but other lawmakers said he is getting married Saturday in Frederick, Md.

The ticket offer drew criticism from state Republican leaders, who accused Glendening of breaking the spirit of new ethics laws by putting pressure on lawmakers to attend in order to network with the state's government, education and business leaders.

"This puts legislators in a very bad position," said Del. Robert Kittleman, minority leader of the Maryland House of Delegates.

The governor's office defended the $162,000 cost for the tent, $140,000 of which will come from the state.

Local economic development agencies will pay the remaining $22,000.

John Howard, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission, said the commission is paying $240 each for four tickets.

Attending from the county will be: Paul Barbas of Allegheny Ventures, the developer of Friendship Technology Park; Howard Leedham, who is starting a charity airlift program at Hagerstown Regional Airport; Frank Erck, EDC board member; and Tom Riford, former EDC marketing director.

The commission sends a local contingent every year to introduce local business people to high-level state officials and show them they are appreciated, Howard said.

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