At Maryland State House, Lobbyists Get to Bypass Security

Lobbyists pressure state to allow them to bypass facility's new metal detection and security system

A new security system in Annapolis means that visitors should expect longer lines outside the State House and other government buildings when the General Assembly session begins this month.

But most Annapolis lobbyists won't be waiting in them.

The professional State House lobbying corps, which boasts 14 members who earned more than $500,000 in 2004, has managed to preserve its rapid access to the historic capitol complex, overturning an earlier decision that would have made them stand outside and pass through metal detectors like day visitors.

The Maryland Department of General Services, which provides security at state buildings, had first determined that lobbyists should not receive the same entry privileges as the governor, the first lady, lawmakers, legislative services workers and members of the news media.

But some of the most powerful players in Annapolis, including former legislators who now work as lobbyists, refused to accept a decision handed down in November.

"I went ballistic. A couple of other people went ballistic," said lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano. "We brought pressure to bear and turned it around."

A few weeks after the fall ruling, state officials changed the regulation and decided that registered lobbyists can bypass the police and security equipment at the entrance to government buildings. The privilege will go only to those who are registered with the Maryland State Ethics Commission, undergo a background check and pay a $50 fee for their badges.

Among those fighting to maintain rapid access was Barbara A. Hoffman, the former chairwoman of the Senate Budget and Taxation Committee who became a lobbyist after a 2002 election defeat.

Hoffman said she convinced the Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller that lobbyists who are former lawmakers should have speedy entry. General Services officials decided that, rather than treating some differently, all paid lobbyists would receive the same security-passing ability, she said.

"Someone who is there every day for 90 days is not a danger," she said. "I'm a known quantity. What they were saying was you could be a columnist for Al-Jazeera, and you don't have to go through a metal detector. But I do?"

The new rules aren't sitting well with some of those left behind.

Clare Whitbeck, 65, travels regularly from her St. Mary's County home to meet with lawmakers as a volunteer advocate for Voices for Quality Care, a statewide group that works on nursing home issues. When she renewed her identification badge this winter, she was told of the new rules. Where previously she bypassed security, her new pass would allow her only to cut to the front of the line, after which she would have to go through the metal detector and have her bag checked.

"I don't understand why the governor wants to limit the access of citizens to their legislators," Whitbeck said, adding that she fears only lobbyists hired by special interests will get into the buildings quickly enough to reach lawmakers at the beginning of the day, before the start of floor sessions or committee meetings.

She said it is impractical for her to register as a professional lobbyist because of the paperwork, complex filing requirements and dense regulations.

Does she consider herself a threat? "Not that I know of," Whitbeck said. "But if they keep harassing me like this, I might want to become one."

General Services officials first announced new security procedures a year ago, but delayed the implementation after complaints. The lobbyists continued to negotiate with officials for much of the year, and a final decision appeared to come in November.

"The new card, part of Governor Ehrlich's homeland security initiatives, replaces pre-9/11 state-issued identification cards that were in circulation," said Dave Humphrey, a General Services spokesman in an e-mail response to questions. "To date, more than 43,000 cards have been distributed. Of that number, approximately 2,500 have magnetometer bypass privileges. Based on our risk assessment, we concluded that we need to limit the number of people who bypass the magnetometers and X-ray equipment."

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