By Daniel Menefee
A Senate bill to require online financial disclosures of state and county officials hit a wall of skepticism Wednesday from House Environmental Committee Chair Maggie McIntosh. She said the time to consider the privacy ramifications for legislators was running out in the closing days of the legislative session.
“I saw this bill coming, and I certainly support the intent of this bill, but there’s a lot to digest here,” McIntosh told Sen. Jamie Raskin, D-Montgomery, the author of the Senate bill. “I just don’t know if we can do it in five days” when the session is scheduled to end.
Raskin disagreed that five days wasn’t enough time to pass the bill.
“Five days is an eternity in Annapolis,” he said to a roar of laughter.
McIntosh questions disclosures in other states
McIntosh questioned testimony from Raskin that was based on a report from Common Cause Maryland, which identified disclosure standards in 29 other states that Maryland could meet. She said the states in the report were not all comparable to Maryland in the way disclosures are handled. She said Maryland lawmakers in many cases were required to disclose much more information than some of the states listed in the report.
For instance, some states do not require lawmakers to disclose their mortgage companies and other creditors, which is required of Maryland lawmakers, McIntosh said.
“My issue here is not that I don’t support the legislation,” McIntosh said. “But I think we are not comparing apples to apples or even apples to oranges…”
She said Common Cause’s previous testimony before the Senate Education Health and Environmental Affairs pointed to Washington State as requiring online disclosures, but the state only provides PDF copies through email on request. She then pointed to Texas where requests are made online but the information is not “searchable.”
Raskin responded that the Common Cause report simply represented a “range of practices” of the 29 states and a “bunch of them” post disclosures online or answer requests through email.
McIntosh also wondered about identity theft, but Raskin said information posted online would not contain account numbers or telephone numbers.
20th century standards
Raskin intimated that Maryland was operating in the last century with regards to disclosures.
“Remember what our system is,” Raskin said. “It is very old school.”
He said the current system requires citizens to visit an office in Annapolis during business hours and sign in, a process which could take a whole day for someone living in Western Maryland.
“We are the only state in the union that operates like that and obviously it is a severe burden on the elderly, the disabled, people without driver’s licenses, and people who can’t afford the expense of missing work,” Raskin said.
Maryland’s disclosure requirements “were otherwise quite solid,” he said, and the next step was to simply make those disclosures more accessible to the public.
“This is the single most important thing we can do to bring our ethics regime into the 21st century,” he said.
The Senate bill passed unanimously last month.
Maryland Association of Counties objects to local disclosures
An amendment in the Senate bill offered by Sen. Robert Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, added the requirement that county executives, council members and commissioners also post their required disclosure forms online. The Maryland Association of Counties was opposed.
“We believe there is a different level of power and geographic scope” for county officials, said Les Knapp, associate director of the Maryland Association of Counties. “A county official wields commensurately less power and affects a smaller geographic area than a state official.”
Knapp said MACO was not against financial disclosures readily available at the local level–where citizens can request and get the information from the local jurisdictions.
Raskin told the committee there had been allegations of conflict of interest at the local level in dealing with contracts.
“We are talking about people who are dealing with millions of dollars,” Raskin said. He said it was unreasonable to make people travel 90 minutes for information that is already public “and can easily be put online.”
McIntosh to consult with other members and cyber security experts
After the hearing McIntosh said she would try to move the bill through by the end of the session but said she would have to consult with the House Judiciary Committee, the committee on Cyber Security, and Ways and Means.
“There are a lot of questions and a lot of complications,” she said. “I’m very much going to try and move the bill.”
Online disclosures will be mandatory by Jan. 31, 2013 if the law is passed.