Delicate talk on fund-raising bills yields to bit of heat

February 20, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- For 3 1/2 hours yesterday, State House veterans two-stepped and glided and spun rhetorically over the issue in front of them -- a perception, they said, that lobbyists and lawmakers are locked in a tango of corruption.

And then freshman Delegate John S. Morgan, R-Howard, took over for a moment that he seemed to regret later.

Addressing Alan M. Rifkin, a lawyer-lobbyist from Baltimore, Mr. Morgan asked if Mr. Rifkin thought lobbyists in Annapolis had ever promised campaign contributions to legislators in exchange for votes on bills of importance to their clients.

"I can't imagine it has occurred," Mr. Rifkin said.

Delegate Morgan then said his own view was far less optimistic.

"I believe that Mr. Rifkin and others have done exactly that," he said, as the room fell silent.

"I think the comment is out of order," said Delegate Anne S. Perkins, D-Baltimore, chairwoman of the House Committee on Constitutional and Administrative Law.

"Thank you, madame chairwoman," Mr. Rifkin said as he left the committee's witness table.

Delegate Morgan did have more to say later.

"My statement was not directed solely at Alan Rifkin but at lobbying in Annapolis, which has brought up a lot of conflicts which shouldn't be there. I would apologize to Alan if there was any insinuation that he as an individual was involved in illegal activities," he said.

Later still, Mr. Morgan said his statement in the committee roomwas "inaccurate."

Mr. Rifkin said afterward, "I think the heat of the moment got to the delegate."

The initial exchange came near the end of marathon testimony on a dozen or more bills that seek to deal with what virtually every speaker called a "perception" -- of financial relationships between legislators and lobbyists that might undermine the political system.

Attorney General J. Joseph Curran Jr. urged the House committee to act favorably on the legislation.

The bills given a hearing yesterday -- several of them accorded a good chance of passage because they are sponsored by House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. -- would restrict and in some cases outlaw participation of lobbyists in managing political action committees in other forms of fund raising.

Mr. Curran, who served in the House of Delegates and in the state Senate, had a warning for the delegates:

"You should take cognizance that when [lobbyists] are making these large sums of money doing your work and our work, it leads to a damaging perception." For the most part, he suggested, lobbyists are not providing information unavailable to legislators and their staff members. Sever the link, he suggested.

What the voters want, said Delegate James F. Ports Jr., R-Baltimore County, is to know that "we can't be bought and the lobbyists can't buy our votes."

Yesterday's testimony demanded an understanding of terms peculiar to the business of putting together money to help elect politicians. They include "bundling" (the assembling of contributions by a single industry representative to maximize the power of the contributions), "transfers" (moving contributions from PACs or from candidates with big treasuries to less well-financed allies), "corporate speech" (the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that campaign contributions are corporate speech and therefore constitutionally protected) and "independent expenditures" (money spent on behalf of a candidate without actually being contributed to that candidate; often, this is money spent by individuals or groups who have "maxed out" -- contributed all that the law allows.)

The parade of converts to the cause of reform -- or revision, as he preferred to call it -- was led by Mr. Mitchell. In recent years, Mr. Mitchell had ordered the death of similar bills in committee, saying the time for change had not arrived. This time, he had come to praise the bills, not to bury them.

Several other organizations, including Maryland Business for Responsive Government, said they, too, had been persuaded that the perception of unhealthy alliances between money and votes demanded change. But the business group says the bills would be improved if the limits on a single PAC's contributions were raised to $10,000 from the $8,000 proposed by Mr. Mitchell.

Maryland Common Cause proposed a limit of $4,000 -- and said anything higher would sustain the perception that money drives politics.

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