April 8, 2010

Bill would make lobbyists pay for increased public access

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By Erich Wagner
Erich@MarylandReporter.com

Lobbyists would pay to implement the General Assembly’s goals for greater public access to the legislature’s action, under a bill introduced in the final days of this year’s session.

Del. Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, tried Thursday to resurrect aspects of her Open Government bill by introducing the new proposal to hike lobbyist registration fees by 150 percent. This would provide funding for the video streaming of committee hearings and end the $800 subscription for “up to the minute” electronic access.

Mizeur said she hopes that the new bill will prevent General Assembly leadership from making excuses for not moving forward on these issues.

“If the changes are addressed administratively, leaders could say the reason not to do it is because of the price tag,” Mizeur said. “Well, here’s the money for the changes.”

Top lawmakers in both chambers have said that they’d prefer to make these changes administratively rather than through legislation. Mizeur’s new bill would increase lobbyist registration fees from $100 to $250 per client to pay for technological improvements.

With the session ending Monday night, Mizeur’s new proposal’s chances seem slim.

Some of the changes in the Maryland Open Government Act have already been made, including the posting of all committee votes on bills and amendments.

The House plans to begin streaming committee hearings on the Internet next year, as well. But the Miller Senate Office Building and the Joint Hearing Room are not yet wired for the technology.

If the bill were to pass, it would be the second time in the past three years that lobbyists’ registration fees increased.

Most lobbyists refused to say anything on the record, given that the session ends Monday and most of the bills they are advocating are still up in the air. Several lobbyists commented that their clients would be the ones to pay for the increased fees.

A few had some carefully chosen words.

Joel Rozner, the highest-paid lobbyist last year and member of the lobbying firm Rifkin, Livingston, Levitan & Silver, asked, “Can I give you a quote on Tuesday?”

And Michael Gisriel, of Foard, Gisriel, O’Brien and Ward, said he thought “$100 is plenty.”

House Speaker Michael Busch said he couldn’t speak to the bill’s chances because he wasn’t at its hearing, but said there are practical concerns with making the technological upgrades.

“We’d love to make sure we can stream all hearings, but the Senate doesn’t have the technology,” Busch said. “We can’t force them to do it if they don’t have the technology to do it, and that complicates things.”