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Does Washington County need another voice in Annapolis?

January 08, 2001

Does Washington County need another voice in Annapolis?



By Bob Maginnis


In October, a group of county commissioners from across Western Maryland met in Hagerstown to discuss, among other things, whether the region's interests would be served by having a lobbyist in the state capital during the General Assembly session.

The arguments against the idea included the fact that local officials don't hesitate to go to Annapolis when there's an issue they're interested in, and that the Maryland Association of Counties already performs a lobbying function.

But there must be some reason why some local governments annually spend amounts ranging from $25,000 to more than $500,000. To find out, I talked to two veteran lobbyists, Sheila Sprague from Montgomery County and Kevin O'Keeffe from Anne Arundel County.

According to them, lobbyists do two things - provide the local government with "a voice at the table," in O'Keeffe's words, and act as a source of information to their own lawmakers and others who need to know what effect a bill will have.

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Both O'Keeffe and Sprague had some different ideas about how to build such a program, but both agreed that it's not enough to be in Annapolis only during the 90-day session.

Being there prior to the session, when committees and task forces are working on proposals, is necessary, Sprague said, "because you don't want to move to Annapolis the first day of the session and try to find out what the bills are."

How long should a local government plan to have someone in the state capital?

"The session is over in April, as far as elected officials go. But with the exception of the end of April and the start of May, the session never really ends," she said.

If a local government doesn't have someone there while all the between-the-session activities are going on, Sprague said, it won't be able to provide input on some important matters.

O'Keeffe, who began his career with Baltimore City, said that it is possible to have a lobbying operation that isn't year-round.

"If you're going to hire somebody that isn't full-time, you could do it like Nov. 1 through May 31," O'Keeffe said, adding that whoever is hired would need some preparation time before the session starts and some time afterward, to clean up loose ends and monitor possible vetoes by the governor.

It might be possible, he said, to hire another county attorney who would attend to those duties part of the year, or a government-relations specialist who would also work with federal officials.

What is the key function of a lobbyist?

"Our job is to convince the legislator to vote in a certain way," Sprague said, adding that it's not always as easy as it sounds.

Although the county agrees on an agenda - Montgomery County departments have to their input on proposed bills in by July 1 - Sprague said that sometimes local lawmakers and county officials disagree.

"When it comes to individual bills, we're not necessarily on the same page," she said.

When that happens, she said, the lobbyist has to go and ask them to amend it, or if it's a bill by another county's lawmaker, to join in lobbying against it.

O'Keeffe helps his own county legislators by reviewing all of the bills that are filed, then referring them to various county departments for their input.

He also helps with the county's presentations to the governor and budget officials in September and October and with the county executive's dinner in December, where the county's priorities for the upcoming session are announced.

What personal qualities does a lobbyists need?

"A person has to have impeccable integrity," Sprague said,

"If you give a legislator bad information, or skew an opponent's information, you're finished," she said.

Once you've established your credibility, Sprague said, then you need "the ability to formulate your case and sell it."

O'Keeffe put it more simply:

"It's likability, but credibility first. You have to be credible, because they have to believe what you're telling them. And I think you have to like what you do and be respectful of different viewpoints, because we have a very diverse legislature."

What's the toughest thing about the job?

Both agreed that aside from the pace of the legislature, which increases as the session's end draws near, one of the toughest things is telling friendly lawmakers that you can't support their bills, sometimes for reasons that have nothing to do with a bill's merits.

"If they're trying to do something and we can't support it because of financial matters, that's hard. You're always trying to get them to see the big picture," O'Keeffe said.

To hear the job described by these veterans, both with more than 10 years' experience, local governments' lobbyists are researchers, advocates, but perhaps most important, good listeners, attending many meetings to make sure their area's interests aren't overlooked or compromised by some piece of legislation.

Washington County is already at a disadvantage because, unlike the so-called "Big Seven," the counties with their own executives, it doesn't get a private meeting with the governor each fall. Does it make sense for this county not to at least consider the possibility that some extra eyes and ears in Annapolis might pay big dividends?

Bob Maginnis is opinion editor of The Herald-Mail newspapers.

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