Officials fromaroundd the state are gathering in Ocean City this week at the Maryland Association of Counties annual meeting. The officials will be surrounded by deep-pocketed types aiming to influence the way they make law and policy. We have come to call them lobbyists.
Jimmy Tarlau, a former member of the Maryland House of Delegates, checks off the ways high-paid lobbyists distort the public policy process with financial contributions and provides a checklist of how the Legislature should check the lobbyists power.
As soon as they stop eating the lobbyists' crab cakes.
/By Jimmy Tarlau<>Maryland Matters/ We really do have a problem with special interests in Annapolis. There is an uneven playing field, with well-paid lobbying firms having an undue influence in the development, passage, and blocking of important legislation in Annapolis.
That phenomenon is on display this week in Ocean City, with dozens of lobbying firms hosting or sponsoring receptions for elected officials attending the Maryland Association of Counties summer convention.
There is nothing inherently wrong with lobbying or advocating for legislation in Annapolis. It should be encouraged. Legislators need to hear from their constituents, businesses, labor, advocates for criminal justice reform and consumer advocates.
They need to hear from people who have expertise on a specific topic. Lobbyists and policy advocates have a lifetime of experience, and often can give guidance to legislators, who may have little knowledge on the legislation under discussion.
The problem is that certain lobbyists and their firms have an unfair advantage over other advocates and the general public. They have an unfair advantage because of their greater access through personal connections and their deeper pockets.
Here are some of the things the General Assembly should enact in 2022 to level the playing field:
Close the revolving door: Former legislators and senior staff have undue influence when they leave their positions and join lobbying firms. Only the wealthiest clients and lobbying firms have the resources to hire these former staffers. It gives the wealthiest lobbying groups an unfair advantage over the general public. There is already a rule that legislators can’t lobby the General Assembly for one year after they leave office, but this should be expanded. There should be a rule that for two years former legislators cannot get jobs to lobby their former colleagues. And this rule should be expanded to senior staffers of the executive branch, Senate president, the speaker of the House, and standing legislative committees.
Eliminate delegation dinners: Elaborate dinners organized by lobbyists have to go. It is illegal during the legislation session to buy a legislator lunch or even a cup of coffee, but there is a big loophole: lobbyists can take whole committees or delegations (e.g., the House Economic Matters Committee, or the Montgomery County delegation) out to dinner at Ruth’s Chris or some other fancy restaurant. These dinners (including lots of liquor) can cost $5,000-$10,000, and lobbyists might spend up to $200 per legislator. This gives lobbyists for corporations and business associations a lot more opportunity, in very cozy circumstances, to make their case in front of legislators. Advocates for non-profit organizations and the general public just don’t have such deep pockets, or indeed any equivalent way to present their case to legislators.
Increase the registration costs for lobbyists for corporations: The State Ethics Commission does an important job. Among other responsibilities, the commission regulates lobbyists through programs of registration, disclosure, and reporting. The staffing of the ethics commission is traditionally funded by registration fees from lobbyists, $100 for each client per year. This is a very low fee, considering what power lobbyists have in shaping laws; and it means that the ethics commission is perpetually underfunded. It should be increased to $500 for every corporate client (with the fee for non-profit clients remaining at $100). Maybe it would be an incentive for lobbying firms to take on more non-profit clients!
Implement a ban on contributions by lobbyists: Lobbyists should be advocating their positions based on the logic of their arguments, not on the contributions they have given to elected officials. Four states have a ban on contributions from lobbyists to political candidates. Maryland should be the fifth state to implement the ban.
Eliminate direct corporation donations to legislators: Congress does not allow direct contributions to candidates for federal offices from the treasury funds of corporations, labor organizations, trade associations, and banks. The Maryland General Assembly should have the same policy for state candidates.
Corporations and other organizations can only make contributions through political action committees; each PAC is funded by contributions made voluntarily by individuals because they believe in the policies the political action committee is advocating for. Such PACs exist for the sole purpose of making political contributions and advocating for political candidates.
There are over 20 states that prohibit direct corporate contributions to state candidates, including Alabama, Arizona and Kentucky. The Maryland General Assembly should follow the example of the federal government and pass a law that corporations cannot give money out of their general funds to state candidates. All contributions should be through PACs.
Lobbying and advocacy should be encouraged, but it should be done in a way in which everyone has the same access and ability to influence the legislative outcome.
Tarlau is a Mount Rainier council member and former Delegate in the Maryland House. He is a board member of Our Revolution Maryland. Published in Maryland Matters August 19.