Monday, August 24, 2009

State Legislators Get Free E-ZPasses

Yesterday, the Post reported that 4,990 Maryland E-ZPass holders canceled their accounts due to the new fees levied by the Maryland Transportation Authority (MdTA). We’ll bet that none of the canceled accounts belong to members of the General Assembly. Why?

Because they can get E-ZPasses for free.

We confirmed with MdTA spokeswoman Teri Moss last week that 128 of the 188 state legislators in Maryland have “non-revenue accounts,” or free E-ZPasses. She told us, “They are allowed per our trust agreement to have non-revenue accounts to provide free passage while they are on official business.” However, she refused to provide the names of the state legislators who had the free passes due to “privacy and security issues.” We were unable to obtain any information on the legal authority by which the legislators are entitled to the free passes, the total amount in toll revenues lost as a result of their use, or the accounting controls, if any, employed on the passes.

Do the state legislators really need free E-ZPasses for official business? Of course not, for the following reasons:

1. Members of the General Assembly already receive mileage reimbursements plus a $600 annual lump-sum distribution for official travel.

2. If the above expenses were not enough, consider the locations of Maryland’s primary in-state toll facilities: I-95 between the Baltimore Beltway and the Delaware state border, the Baltimore interstate tunnels and the Bay Bridge. Only commuters from seven legislative districts (7, 8, 34, 35, 36, 37 and 38) would have to travel through those routes to get to Annapolis. So twenty-eight legislators might have a plausible claim to free E-ZPasses. What about the one hundred others who have them?

3. Many state legislators expense hotel rooms in Annapolis during session, including at least one Delegate from Anne Arundel County. Why should taxpayers subsidize both prospective commuting costs and capital hotel rooms?

4. The principal reasons many legislators travel around the state are private business trips, vacations and attendance at fundraisers. The latter is especially true for leadership and committee chairs, who are expected to criss-cross the state to help backbenchers raise money. We have no evidence that E-ZPass technology can differentiate between official business and these private trips. That’s why legislators should fill out expense reports rather than assume that all their travel should be free.

A bigger issue than the free E-ZPasses themselves is MdTA’s refusal to release information about them. We find no merit in their “privacy and security issues.” Elected officials are not entitled to any privacy when they spend public funds. As for security, we hardly believe that Osama bin Laden will launch a terror attack once he learns that Delegates X, Y and Z have free E-ZPasses. Legislators’ office expenses are available for public inspection in Annapolis (although they are unfortunately not online). Why should the use of free E-ZPasses be any different from other expenses? We also wonder if any former state legislators continue to benefit from free passes after leaving office. MdTA is begging for a Public Information request, which - of course - we are in the process of drafting.

This is just one more legislative perk to join the others, some of which include:

1. Special General Assembly license plates designed to deter speeding and parking tickets.

2. Lobbyist parties, including events held on state property.

3. Lobbyist-provided meals for General Assembly committees and county delegations.

Last year, we related an old legend about a state legislator who gained 100 pounds during a single session due to gorging and gluttony. Insiders (including some in the mainstream media) mostly shrugged off the MACO Moment because they regarded it as typical of the capital’s ancient booze-drenched culture. And the truth is that any legislator can receive a lobbyist-purchased lobster no matter how incompetent or disinterested he or she is because, after all, a vote is a vote.

And so taxes are up. Spending will be cut again and again. Budgets tighten and pain spreads. The vulnerable have taken to the streets.

Why should the perks of the powerful alone be spared?