Best little legislature money can buy

June 09, 1994|By Frank A. DeFilippo

TWO YEARS ago, the leadership of the General Assembly put Bruce Bereano out of the political action committee business. Through his Bereano PAC and a dozen others like it that he controlled, the million-dollar lobbyist was amassing too much vote-pulling power by infusing legislators' campaigns with generous donations.

So the legislature passed a law forbiding lobbyists from establishing PACs or advising other PACs on the distribution of largess to lawmakers and candidates.

So what happened? Today, the assembly's leaders have themselves become the sources of huge amounts of campaign cash with which they can purchase the loyalty of lawmakers and assure future votes in the House and Senate. They're merely following the yellow brick road that Mr. Bereano traveled.

Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, of Prince George's County, has a campaign nest egg of $350,000. Recently, the tyro House speaker, Del. Casper R. Taylor Jr., from Cumberland, was able to raise $200,000 after only four months on the job.

In a sense, Mr. Miller and Mr. Taylor have become middlemen for the lobbyists. That a man from Cumberland can raise so much money in such a short time illustrates (1) his own attachment to special interests and (2) the ability of lobbyists to generate huge amounts of cash on demand.

As the money in motion proceeds through the political food chain, Mr. Miller and Mr. Taylor in turn will subsidize the campaigns of loyal legislators and others on the make within the legislative pecking order.

Thus, the very same General Assembly that used to be called a rubber stamp for the governor is now bought and paid for by the legislative leadership.

And in the process of shifting loyalties, the role of the the executive has diminished and the job of winning legislative votes has become more difficult. Legislators no longer have to rely on the governor for financial handouts, although they'll gladly accept donations as they did from Gov. William Donald Schaefer and Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke.

The money itself has created independent power bases for many legislators, which frees them from loyalty to political parties, ideologies and, sadly, from voters. In many cases, loyalty is owed first to money and its sources.

In the catchpenny world of politics, legislators designed their own narrow political economy within a framework of legal ambiguities. There are two kinds of committees a candidate can establish -- a standard committee or what is called a "continuing" committee.

A continuing committee, as the name suggests, carries over from year to year, campaign to campaign. Many candidates amass thousands of dollars in continuing committees that can ++ legally be used for whatever is vaguely construed as a political purpose. It's a law to be winked at, kind of a personal slush fund of walk-around money, a bank account funded by special interests.

Need a new car? Sure. Use it for campaigning? Then pay for it through a continuing committee. Dinner for eight? That's politicking, even though it's family, so pay for it out of a continuing committee.

In the bad old days, there were no more than half a dozen elbow-grabbing lobbyists in the State House. This legislation season, there were more than 500 lobbyists plying their trade in Annapolis, and they reported fees and expenses of more than $13 million.

To be sure, a substantial chunk of that money was recycled into political treasuries not only as a down payment but as a thank-you note as well. That Mr. Bereano raised the ante in state politics is a matter of record he liked to brag about. In fact, his audacious high-visibility antics are part of what might have caught the attention of federal prosecutors.

Yet short of being accused of piddling charges of abusing the U.S. mails (would it have been different if Mr. Bereano had used Federal Express or UPS?), Mr. Miller and Mr. Taylor are doing no less than what Mr. Bereano set out to do as a lobbyist -- win friends and influence people through the use of money.

Mr. Miller and Mr. Taylor have more than a half-million dollars between them to lavish on favored candidates for the legislature and to make certain the leadership team falls into line so that it can follow the wishes of the president of the Senate and the speaker of the House.

Next year, Maryland will have the best legislature money can buy. Nobody ever said democracy in action comes cheap.

Frank A. DeFilippo specializes in Maryland politics.

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