ONE OF THE GUESTS at John Dalton's inaugral was Blair Lee III, who only days later would deliver his first address to the General Assembly as Maryland's acting chief executive.And he referred in this address to comments made to him by three Virginia officials during his visit. Mr. Lee said they remarked that "it certainly is too bad about all the trouble you've been having in Maryland." Mr. Lee replied in his State of the State address in Annapolis, "Yes, It is too bad. It is more than too bad. It's absolutely intolerable. Let's start right now and get ourselves out of this morass."
Now just in case there is a resident of Maryland who doesn't know what "all the trouble" refers to, Mr. Lee was taling about the "absolutely intolerable" image of the state left by years of scandal. And more important, the acting governor asked the legislature for a thorough overhaul of the state's ethics laws. Though he did not present the specifics of his program, Mr. Lee said some of his proposals might seem harsh; but, he added, "they are the price we must pay to regain the full confidence of our own people and the full respect of our neghbors."
Well, in Annapolis as in Richmond, one must be careful not to read too much into the opening addresses of governors. But Mr. Lee's concern about ethics is indeed welcome. Although the state does have laws addressing conflicts of interest, campaign financing, financial disclosures and ethical conduct, Mr. Lee has rightly pointed out that they are "full of loopholes, they don't apply to all officials, they stop short of being really convincing, and the enforcement agencies are weak and scattered." Among other things, he will propose to close the loopholes, extend the laws to cove all public officials in the state, and centralize enforcement in a single agency.
If ever there was a time for improvements in these ethics, it is now, after Maryland's latest scandals - and in an election year when sensitive candidates for the General Assembly as well as the top three elected offices in the state should be responding to public concern about the political reputation of Maryland and the quality of its government. Acting Gov. Lee, in seizing the initiative from the position he nows enjoys, may reap an extra political dividend. But he has struck a proper cord, and it remains to see how many other leaders and candidates in Maryland will follow suit.