The Voice of the People Is Heard for a Price

BARRY RASCOVAR

June 14, 1992|By BARRY RASCOVAR

Pssst! Wanna hire a bigtime lobbyist? Here's the secret: come up with an average of $13,169 and one of Maryland's top five influence-peddlers in Annapolis is yours. C.O.D., of course.

This has been a banner year for Maryland lobbyists. There may be a prolonged recession out there, but for the persistent persuaders of the State House, these are boom times.

Talk about making a living wage! These guys and gals are raking in the cash. The top five lobbyists alone received payments of $2.1 million from their 163 clients for just six months' worth of work.

Clearly, this is a growth industry. Don't tell your kids to grow up to be cowboys, or even doctors. Tell them to be lobbyists.

The pay can't be beat. You get to schmooze with the powerful and enjoy a life of luxury during the General Assembly session. The rest of the year can be spent aboard your newly purchased yacht, since nothing much happens in Annapolis between June and January.

What if your group or cause cannot afford $13,000 to hire a Top Gun? Well, you're out of luck. It takes money to grease the wheels of democracy. Those who have it generally get their way. Those who aren't well-endowed learn a lesson in the workings of a free-market legislature.

Is Annapolis for sale? It looks that way. Today, you have to buy influence. And legislators often are just as culpable as the lobbyists themselves. Many lawmakers expect to be wined and dined. During the 90-day legislative session, these solons live the high life. The parties are spectacular. Gourmet dining, with the lobbyist picking up the tab, is de rigueur. Doing favors for legislators is part of a lobbyist's job.

Even when the General Assembly isn't in session, legislators have their hands out. Lobbyists are expected to contribute handsomely to scores of fund-raisers. The amounts being raised are enormous. How much of this money is used indirectly to enhance a legislator's standard of living is a matter of speculation. But lobbyists feel the heat when the solicitations arrive in the mail.

Del. Casper Taylor recently held a golf tournament in Western Maryland. The place was crawling with lobbyists. Why? Because Mr. Taylor chairs the Economic Matters Committee, which handles most business-related bills. Two Baltimore lobbyists, though they have scant regard for Mr. Taylor, showed up anyway and paid for hundreds of dollars worth of tickets. The rationale? "We'd better go. He's the chairman."

There are numerous methods for winning over delegates and senators. One way is to develop a close personal relationship greased by moola. For instance, top lobbyist Bruce Bereano is eager to take legislators to sports events -- the best seats at Oriole Park or the Capital Centre or even seats to the Super Bowl.

Mr. Bereano also knows when to give a vulnerable legislator a helping hand. He's involved in raising money for Del. Tony Fulton's Legal Defense Fund to help him pay expenses related to charges that he had violated election laws in disbursing campaign funds. This surely helps Mr. Bereano's clients when it comes time for Mr. Fulton to cast votes on bills of interest to the lobbyist.

Health care has become an especially lucrative topic for lobbyists. This past General Assembly session, health-related groups paid $1.3 million to gain representation -- and influence. Gerard E. Evans' law firm took in $400,000 from 12 health groups, with Mr. Evans alone amassing a quarter-million dollars. You've got to have some kind of influence to amass that kind of payment.

Horse-racing, too, meant big bucks for lobbyists, $280,000. This was the year for off-track betting, and the wallets of concerned groups were generously opened to win passage. And one company that had no hot and burning issue in the legislature this year, GTECH, the state's lottery contractor, still opted to display its gratitude for the good work of Mr. Bereano and his sometime sidekick, Marvin Mandel. The company paid the duo $96,000. Imagine how much the twosome would have netted had this been a busy year for their client in Annapolis.

There's nothing illegal in all this. But that doesn't make it right. Fees paid to lobbyists are bordering on the obscene. The willingness of legislators to be lavished with perks is also obscene. Economic interest groups are flocking to Annapolis either to defend or expand their turf for financial gain. Each group is eager to pay handsomely for hiring these influence peddlers.

You can't ban lobbyists from the legislature. Every individual and every group has a legitimate right to be heard. And because so many legislators are too lazy to do their own homework on issues, lobbyists play an important educational role.

Old-fashioned lobbyists, like James J. Doyle, still rely heavily on the persuasiveness of their arguments. But younger lobbyists have modeled themselves after Mr. Bereano, who uses his personal connections to legislators and government leaders to gain leverage.

Money talks these days in Annapolis. That's a sad fact of life. It's also one of the key reasons Marylanders are fed up with elected leaders. Lobbyists play too big a role in State House affairs. The ++ people know it, even if legislators don't.

Barry Rascovar is editorial-page director of The Sun. His column on Maryland politics appears here each week.

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