Big Money, 'Perceptions' and Reform

March 10, 1991|By C. FRASER SMITH | C. FRASER SMITH,Fraser Smith covers Maryland politics for The Sun.

Annapolis -- A number of legislators have suggested recently that campaign finance reform legislation must pass this year in Maryland to cope with a "perception" that big money is the only voice the General Assembly hears.

At hearings in both the Senate and House of Delegates, witnesses who favor the bill have said they know of no real problem -- only the perception of a relationship in which votes depend on campaign contributions.

If perception could be outlawed, this argument suggests, there would be no problem.

Adherents of that viewpoint were dealt a blow last week, however, by James J. Doyle Jr., the lawyer from Baltimore who has lobbied here for a decades.

Over the course of his service here, he said, "money has really taken on a role in theis process that's well beyond the role money should play."

Mr. Doyle said that the average voter may well be discouraged to see that a half million dollars or more can be raised in a single evening of cocktail-sipping and canape-tasting at some swank hotel.

One of this year's reform bill sponsors, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, collected $10,000 last year -- a breakfast warm-up for the actual fund-raiser that would come later.

Stories about such events indicate to the average guy, Mr. Doyle said, "a world to which he doesn't belong and will never belong."

The big check for Senator Miller came from the Maryland doctors represented by lobbyist Gerard E. Evans. As a matter of routine, teams of lobbyists are employed to raise money for legislators they support. The more important the legislator, the more lobbyists he or she can put on his team.

Many legislators use the lobbyist registration list as a fund-raising tool. In the beginning, the list was a reform -- a place for the lobbyist to register officially and to report the names of his clients. Over time, registration created a mailing list for the sale of fund-raiser tickets -- some of which cost $250 each. In some cases, the lobbyist is informed of a quota -- a table of ten, for example -- and encouraged to meet it.

Lobbyist Ira A. Cooke suggested last week that if the assembly really wants reform in fund-raising, it might consider outlawing the practice of soliciting ticket sales using the lobby list. The suggestion drew no comment from the Senate Committee on Economic and Environmental Affairs.

Mr. Miller's bills would remove Mr. Evans and other lobbyists from the fund-raising process -- up to and perhaps including his ability to advise clients on where to invest their political campaign contributions. Just where the line of demarcation should be is one of the many gray and complicated matters the assembly is grappling with.

Last year, Mr. Evans ran the doctors' political action committee and Mr. Miller's fundraising committee. Under the pending bills, a lobbyist would not be able to do either.

It is here that perception and reality merge. Voters such as Joanne Lawler, a Baltimore resident who testified on the reform bills last week, said the big money overtones made her cynical and reluctant to make contributions of her own.

"Why should I give you $30 when you're getting $2,000 from a political action committee?" she asked. How could her comparatively paltry sum of money compete? Mr. Doyle had said earlier he thinks the same question is beginning to reduce participation in the wider democratic process and may account for falling voter turnout.

All of these arguments -- few of them new -- appear to be driving the reform bills toward passage this year. House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, also backs the measures -- after several years of killing them in the House Committee on Constitutional and Administrative Law.

Mr. Mitchell is a devotee of the term "revision," rejecting reform and hanging his advocacy on the perception hook. Whatever his approach, his support is regarded as helpful for the bills' prospects.

Evidence mounts, meanwhile, that a concerned and angry public represented by Joanne Lawler -- and those who voted many incumbents out last November -- is the real motivator here.

Last week, Delegate Brian E. Frosh, D-Montgomery, submitted a petition from 71 House members -- enough to pass a bill -- suggesting that political action committees be limited to contributions of no more than $4,000 during any four year election cycle. The Miller-Mitchell proposal calls for a limit of $8,000 -- and business groups argue that the limit should be $10,000.

"In the 1990 election cycle," Mr. Frosh observed, "the average total expenditure for a winning General Assembly race was $46,841. A contribution of $8,000 would have amounted to more than 17 percent of the average candidate's total expenditures. We believe the influence of PACs will be far too great in campaigns of individual legislators if PACs continue to be permitted to contribute as much as $8,000."

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