Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R) is expected to sign a bill Tuesday that will ban state officials and employees from retaliating against someone who reports a violation of Maryland’s ethics law or participates in an ethics investigation.
Senate Bill 4, introduced by Sen. George C. Edwards (R-Garrett), is a largely uncontroversial proposal to protect whistleblowers that sailed through the General Assembly, garnering widespread approval in the House and Senate.
And as the result of an amendment by Senate President Bill Ferguson (D-Baltimore City), the bill will also close a “loophole” in the state’s rules on gifts to lawmakers by extending those rules to influential organizations that represent counties and municipalities — the Maryland Municipal League and the Maryland Association of Counties.
Yaakov “Jake” Weissmann, Ferguson’s chief of staff, told lawmakers during a March 3 voting session that the amendment was introduced to ensure the state’s ethics law applies evenly to all organizations.
He said the issue was first brought to Ferguson’s attention when lobbying firms raised questions about how to conduct virtual events due to the pandemic. The state’s ethics law requires that meals and beverages given to lawmakers and officials by certain groups, like lobbyists, must be consumed “in the presence” of the donor, meaning those events have to take place in-person, legislative ethics counsel Deadra W. Daly told lawmakers at the March meeting.
Entities representing counties and municipalities aren’t among the groups covered by the current gifting law, so while lobbying firms and other associations couldn’t conduct those virtual events under current law, MACo and MML could.
“There was this kind of loophole that we wanted to fix,” Weissman said.
The amendment was not well received by MML, which in written testimony blasted the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee for adding the amendment just hours before the panel voted to move the bill along.
“Our association solely represents municipal governments; we do not fund Political Action Committees (PACs), donate to candidates, or endorse candidates for public office,” the MML testimony reads. “This distinguishes us from the other entities incorporated in the provisions of this bill, and rightfully so. Our association has always been treated like other government service organizations, agencies and departments in regard to ethics requirements.”
The MML went on to ask members of the House Environment and Transportation Committee to remove the Senate amendment from the bill, a request that was ultimately unsuccessful.
Del. Brooke E. Lierman (D-Baltimore City), the sponsor of the House version of the bill, defended the amendment in an April 12 floor session after Del. Jefferson L. Ghrist (R-Upper Shore) sought to strike it.
Ghrist argued that the amendment should’ve been its own bill, and advocated waiting until the 2022 legislative session to tackle the issue. He said stakeholders weren’t given enough time to thoroughly review the amended bill, echoing criticism from the Maryland Municipal League’s testimony in opposition to the amendment.
“We were not opposed to this bill until an amendment specifically targeting the Maryland Municipal League (MML) and the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo) was added hours before at the applicable Senate Committee voting session,” the MML testimony reads. “The amendment including our association was not proposed in the House cross-filed bill (HB 363), nor was it discussed by witnesses in either chambers’ bill hearing, leaving no time for respectful discussion with its sponsor(s) or the Committee.”
Ghrist said Maryland’s smaller municipalities and jurisdictions, like the ones he represents on the Eastern Shore, don’t have the resources to advocate on their own behalf in the General Assembly.
“They don’t have an office on [State] Circle,” Ghrist said. “They don’t have a team of attorneys representing them.”
He characterized the associations as an “arm of local government,” and said the groups don’t endorse candidates or have political action committees.
Lierman said the amendment wouldn’t hamper either organization’s relationship with lawmakers or their ability to lobby, but would rather ensure the state’s ethics rules are applied universally. She said that, as the law currently stands, the two organizations are given “special treatment” compared with similar associations.
“It’s about transparency and accountability to our constituents,” Lierman said.
Ghrist’s motion was ultimately denied, and the bill passed the House on a 116-15 vote. Lierman’s version of the bill, which was amended to mirror the Senate version, passed as well.
Michael Sanderson, the executive director of the Maryland Association of Counties, said in an email that his organization hasn’t “fully absorbed” how the bill will affect its annual conferences and other events. He noted MACo, like MML, does not have a political action committee or endorse candidates.
Sanderson said he doesn’t believe the bill will “meaningfully affect counties’ ability to be effective in advocating on policy matters.”
“We know state legislators are stakeholders in the community success of their county partners and the many services we deliver locally – that has always been the strong bond between our county elected officials and their state-level counterparts,” Sanderson said. “We serve the same residents, voters, and taxpayers.”
MACo’s annual summer conference was cancelled due to the pandemic in 2020. The association is currently planning an in-person conference for August in Ocean City, on a somewhat scaled-back level. MML is also planning on having a live conference in Ocean City in late June, with virtual events occurring in mid-July.