- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2000

The Maryland General Assembly's public fussing over tightening ethics laws for state legislators has netted little change since new measures went into effect last year.

At least 47 of Maryland's 188 state lawmakers face potential conflicts of interest by working for state-funded agencies, institutions or companies that do business with the state, The Washington Times has found in an analysis of financial disclosures recently filed with the State Ethics Commission.

Seven double-dip into Maryland coffers as part-time lawmakers and full-time state government workers. Another 23 earn full-time pay working for county or city governments, which receive 30 percent of the state budget annually.

Moreover, three legislators own companies that have contracts with the state, and five work for companies that have state contracts.

Nine lawmakers including the chairmen of the Senate and House budget committees and four budget committee members work for universities and colleges that receive millions in state funds.

Together, that means at least 25 percent of General Assembly members have a vested interest in the state budget beyond protecting taxpayers and their legislative paychecks.

What's more, if the lawmakers' whose immediate relatives work for state or local governments are included, more than a third of the General Assembly faces potential conflicts of interest.

Hard-fought ethics reform passed in 1999 now prohibits lawmakers from taking most new jobs with state or local governments unless they get approval from the Joint Committee on Legislative Ethics, a panel composed of fellow lawmakers.

But between the time when lawmakers began discussing reform and when they approved it, the number of state legislators working for state agencies went from five to seven.

Lawmakers' disclosures in March 1999 indicated only two General Assembly members also were working for the state. However, The Times found that three others failed to disclose that they, too, were working for the state.

Problems with enforcement and gaps in the law highlight the potential for conflicted interests, even though some watchdog groups hail Maryland as having some of the most stringent ethics rules for lawmakers in the nation.

A study of 1998 data by the Center for Public Integrity found Maryland had the fifth-highest percentage (37 percent) of double-dipping lawmakers among the 50 states. Maryland also had the eighth-highest percentage (51 percent) of lawmakers with financial ties to lobbyists, and 28 percent of lawmakers served on committees that regulated their business interests.

Comparatively, Virginia boasted the highest percentage (61 percent) of lawmakers on committees regulating their interests and the third-highest percentage (41 percent) of lawmakers with financial ties to lobbyists. About 20 percent of Virginia lawmakers also worked full-time for the state.

Lawmakers say it can be particularly challenging to balance outside work with public duties, which take on the demands of a full-time job during the last half of Maryland's 90-day session.

Some take leave without pay while the General Assembly is in session from mid-January to mid-April. Eleven work as consultants to supplement their $30,591 salaries as delegates and state senators a figure that makes them the sixth-highest paid among the nation's 41 part-time state legislatures.

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