Md. legislature ready to curb lobbyist activity

February 04, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- When William A. Clark filed legislation last year to prohibit doctors from prescribing costly tests at laboratories they own, he learned that opposing the medical establishment can be hazardous to your political health.

Brushing aside Mr. Clark's contention that tests are more costly when a physician's income rises from both the prescribing and the testing ends, the doctors' formidable lobby got his bill killed.

Then they went after Mr. Clark himself.

The doctors' lobbyists and the doctors' political action committee targeted the two-term Harford County legislator and helped defeat him in last September's Democratic primary. Maryland PAC Medical sent $4,000 to Don Fry, one of Mr. Clark's opponents.

Gerard Evans, the lobbyist who controlled the PAC, contributed $500 of his own money. And a second PAC influenced by the lobbyist put another $1,300 in the hands of a Clark opponent.

"They really came after me," Mr. Clark says.

Mr. Evans makes no apologies. He says the former delegate asked for it. "Clark had a long and illustrious history of doc bashing. Physicians were harassed by him in the condescending, smart-aleck attitude he exhibited," Mr. Evans said.

Some Clark constituents had been offended by his shift from the Republican to the Democratic Party -- and by his own connections with PACs.

During the campaign last year, Mr. Clark was described as "a wholly owned subsidiary" of Bruce C. Bereano, the highest-earning lobbyist in Annapolis, who controls at least 11 PACs and distributed as much as $250,000 in campaign contributions during the last election cycle.

The defeat of Mr. Clark in a high-intensity PAC war -- and the defeat of many other incumbents all over Maryland last November -- was viewed as the quintessential manifestation of the power that special interests exert through PACs.

The Clark experience is only one of several motivators pushing the General Assembly to recoil from its relationship with lobbyists -- marked increasingly by wining and dining, gifts and fat campaign contributions -- and the notion in some quarters that the lobbyists, rather than legislators, run the House and Senate.

Today, after years of promising, House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, are scheduled to introduce a package of ethics and campaign spending bills that would substantially limit a lobbyist's participation in political fund-raising, control lobbyists' gift-giving and prohibit their involvement in political action committees.

The proposals reportedly also would, for the first time in Maryland, impose limits on PAC contributions to campaigns, which were 43 per

cent higher in 1990 than in 1987.

"We have a situation where political action committees, often controlled by lobbyists, have an unlimited ability to influence policy," said Delegate Anne S. Perkins, D-Baltimore, chairwoman the Committee on Constitutional and Administrative Law, which will first consider the leadership proposals. "We have to make sure that no group is able to tip the balance in their own direction."

In some cases -- including the continuing struggle over a $75 million computer procurement for the State Lottery Agency -- lobbyists have been so intrusive that Gov. William Donald Schaefer ordered an extraordinary new process to insulate him and the legislature from the potential for charges that lobbyists were using their connections to take control of the lawmaking system.

"I'll support anything they do," said James J. Doyle Jr., the silver-haired dean of lobbyists in Annapolis whose reliance on lawyerly advocacy makes him perhaps the most respected lobbyist in Annapolis. "I think something ought to be done. I've said so for years," he said.

But some lobbyists' perception of soiled laundry flapping in the State House breeze is not the chief anxiety of the legislators. If the legislature does act this year to control its own campaign spending and the contributions of PACs, the primary objective may be to regain the confidence of the public following a most disastrous year for incumbents, says Delegate Paul G. Pinsky, D-Prince George's.

"There's a mood out there that has to be addressed, a general distrust," he said. To some extent, the fear exists that the voters' anger is so deep and so wide-ranging that it threatens to remove even more veteran lawmakers if changes are not made.

Mr. Mitchell's sponsorship of these bills represents a striking turnaround.

For several years running, he personally killed legislation that would have made significant changes in Maryland campaign fund-raising laws. Now, he says, he is convinced the public wants the politicians to control campaign spending and restrain well-heeled special interests represented by the lobbyists.

Personal difficulties may have added to the speaker's change of heart.

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