WHILE THOSE BLEARY-EYED lawmakers in Annapolis are figuring out precisely what it is they have done for-or to-their constituents, their legislative tribute to ethics deserves a close look. Given the traditional ways of conducting business in the state capital, it is something of an accomplishment. The bill, which was considered a priority by both Gov. Harry R. Hughes and the new leadership of the General Assembly, tightens restrictions on gifts to public officials and increases the amount of information they must reveal about their personal finances.
The requirements apply to all elected officials, judges, members of the executive branch, state employees in the top grades, employees in policy-making positions and (here's one to watch) those who execute state contracts. They will be required to report any gifts valued at more than $25 and from whom they come; also, they must list any members of their immediate families who are employed by businesses doing work for the statef and they must report whatever property they own in or out of state. But will these rules make a difference?
"I don't believe any legislation will make anybody honest or dishonest," says Sen. Frederick Malkus (D-Dorchester), who opposed the bill, and who certainly has been around Annapolis long enough to speak with authority on the subject. Still, Sen. Howard A. Denis of Montgomery County makes a better point: "No law can make a crook into an honest man. But this bill gives guidance to public officials who want to act in an ethical manner." Fair enough-for that is the heart of the problem in Annapolis, where the interaction of special-interest lobbyists and lawmakers is a way of legislative life, where the part-time job of making laws is too often considered to be a continuation of the full-time job of doing private business.
The process was outlined in an article in this paper on Sunday about the House Economic Matters Committee: "Business interests, represented by knowledgeable and well-paid lobbyists, including one who shares an apartment with the committee's vice chairman, got their way on nearly 8 of every 10 bills they were concerned about, with the committee passing 7 of every 10 bills the special interests supported and killing a resounding 9 of every 10 measures they opposed."
This figures, when you consider that more than half of the committee members are employed in industries the committee regulates. What many might consider a conflict of interests is looked upon more as a fortunate conflux of interests. So the ethics bill won't work any wonders on the system in Annapolis. But at least the disclosure of these relationships between money and lawmaking should assist voters in deciding just when those converging interests conflict with theirs.