Will Annapolis Scandals "Fetch" Better Ways?

We've heard complaints that the Maryland General Assembly is not getting much done because of all the scandals.

That's fine in our view; we've got bushels of laws out there now. Were it not for the need to clamp down on chicken wastes and nutrient pollution pouring into the Chesapeake in hopes of forestalling Pfiesteria outbreaks, we'd advise the Legislature to cancel all of its committee hearings and tend to the ethics of its members.

This year already we've seen an expulsion (Sen. Larry Young), a resignation under fire (Del. Gerald J. Curran) and an ethics investigation of a leader (House Speaker Casper Taylor Jr.) for his role in a sweetheart deal for a buddy.

Every once in a while, the time arrives in a business and household for a round of soul-searching. Even in a whole state.

Maryland reminds us of Illinois 25 years or 30 years ago when kickbacks and payoffs were epidemic. Two governors (Otto Kerner and Dan Walker) went to prison. The list of convicted legislators from that era wouldn't fit in this space. They used to say that crime in the Illinois General Assembly was higher than on the West Side of Chicago. It was true.

Families in Wisconsin, raised in the squeaky-clean LaFollette tradition of governing, used to schedule vacations in June to travel down to the Capitol in Springfield to watch the goings-on. They'd sit in the gallery, mouths agape, watching the General Assembly as if they were polar bears at Brookfield Zoo.

Our favorite was the "fetcher bill." (We were watching from the press gallery.)

A legislator or two would get together and introduce a ridiculous proposal, like ordering changes in the formula for concrete or banning trucks from certain Chicago roads. Why? Dumb as they were, the bills would fetch envelopes of cash from aggrieved industries in return for killing the legislation outright or letting it die mysteriously in committee. Everybody, from the janitor to Blind Jimmy at the magazine stand, knew what was going on.

Finally, something called the Political Honesty Coalition sprouted from Illinois' rich, black soil. It led to a successful referendum that whacked the size of the mischievous Illinois House by one-third.

The Maryland General Assembly isn't as bad as Illinois a generation ago. But entirely too many members seem focused on politics for personal profit, be it health-care, insurance or helping pals in Western Maryland.

Now is the time for legislators to decide whether they're in office to serve constituents and their state or whether they're showing up in Annapolis to manipulate side accounts. If the General Assembly can set up a better system to weed out the latter ilk of politician, it will be time well spent this spring.

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VolumeVI Number 11
March 19-25, 1998
New Bay Times

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