With an ever burgeoning number of lobbyists at work in Annapolis, a special state task force has begun trying to draft a code of conduct for them.
The 13-member commission, formed by legislative leaders to look at the relationship between lawmakers and lobbyists, has been meeting for the past month, hearing about the myriad of laws and regulations governing those relationships. So far, its chairman says, one thing is clear: The public believes the interplay between legislators and lobbyists is smarmy.
"The perception is something we need to deal with," said former delegate Donald B. Robertson, of Montgomery County. "I didn't become chairman of this commission to do nothing."
At the commission's meeting this week, Robertson has urged that work begin on drafting a code of ethics for the more than 500 lobbyists registered in Maryland. He also wants a closer examination of the complex laws governing lobbyists and their disclosure requirements, which most experts agree are confusing. Finally, he's asked the panel to look at the steady rise of group dinners lobbyists put on for legislators now that one-on-one entertaining of lawmakers is prohibited.
The task force is composed of lobbyists, legislators and members of the public appointed by legislative leaders. It has heard testimony from lobbyists, watchdog groups such as Common Cause and from U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), a former Maryland House speaker who headed a commission on legislative ethics last year.
Based on that testimony, Robertson has decided his commission also will look at whether there should be more training for lobbyists on the laws governing them, how penalties should be enforced, whether the definition of who a registered lobbyist is should be expanded and what sort of legislation might be needed to prevent lobbyists from serving on political parties' central committees and other issues.
"He's covering the bases I think he should," said commission member William Pitcher, one of Annapolis's top lobbyists. He said he favored some sort of code of ethics, noting that he is subject to one as a lawyer and that the Maryland lobbyists' professional association advocates one.
Still, he wasn't sure that the public perception of lobbying in Annapolis is as dire as Robertson believes.
"We keep hearing the public perception of lobbyists and legislators is not good, but nobody has really come before us and said that. I'm not so sure there's a problem that needs to be fixed. And if that is the perception, I'm not sure there's anything we can do in this room" to fix it, he said.
"I'm a student of history," Pitcher said. "There's always going to be distrust of the system."
House Minority Leader Robert H. Kittleman (R-Howard), however, said that the public perception is clear: "The public believes legislators are bought and paid for by lobbyists," he said.
He said that the commission could help improve that image, but he's worried that once the group's work is done, it won't have much impact.
Last year, legislative leaders firmly backed Cardin's commission, pledging even before it finished its work to make its recommendations law. Kittleman, who also served on that commission, noted that Robertson's group has not received the same support.
"The legislature's going to feel freer to ignore this one," he said ruefully.
Two of Annapolis's top speech writers are packing up their pens.
Brenda DuVall, who has put words in Gov. Parris N. Glendening's mouth since he was Prince George's county executive, is retiring. And Rosalyn M. Hamlet, wordsmith for House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany), is moving to Washington to write speeches for U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Donna E. Shalala.