Lobbyists wield a growing power

Influence: Power brokers spending more money and representing more clients to fill an increasingly complex role in Annapolis.

January 24, 1999|By C. Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron | C. Fraser Smith and Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Maryland's cadre of highly skilled lobbyists has become a third legislative house, an unofficial branch of state government run by corporate gunslingers who offer cradle-to-grave political services to lawmakers.

Lobbyists help to elect the men and women who vote on their clients' interests. They write legislation, prepare testimony and serve on unofficial committees formed by General Assembly leaders at moments of crisis to forge consensus.

They facilitate all of that with a multitude of favors and legislative comforts: lavish receptions, expensive tickets to sporting events, ice cream socials and, most valuable of all, expert information.

Their activities provoke widely disparate judgments: Lobbyists represent a boon to the public welfare and without them sound lawmaking would be impossible -- or they are a threat to the democratic process and to the Assembly's integrity.

There is no question that the financial stakes for competing interests before the annual 90-day Assembly grow every year. In recent decades lobbyists' influence in Annapolis has soared, along with the willingness of big corporations to pay handsome fees to employ a full-time presence in the State House. Witness these trends:

Over the past 20 years, the number of registered lobbyists in Annapolis has grown from fewer than 200 to 569.

In the past 10 years, the number of corporations and other interests employing lobbyists has more than doubled, from 744 to 1,927.

In that same period, lobbying fees and money spent to lubricate the social and legislative machinery during the Assembly's sessions have mushroomed from about $7.5 million to more than $21 million -- amounting to $111,000 for each of the Assembly's 188 members.

Many lobbyists do quite well financially. For example, Gary R. Alexander, a former legislator, reported fees of slightly more than $1 million last year as a lobbyist.

Leading members of Maryland's third house own impressive automobiles, and buy or rent historic buildings for their offices near the State House. Sometimes, a lobbyist's entertainment budget exceeds a legislator's pay -- a fact that does not go unnoticed by the lawmaker whose vote is being sought.

A lobbyist's approving nod to a wealthy client can send gushers of money into compliant lawmakers' campaign treasuries.

Former House speaker and now Democratic U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who calls lobbyists "absolutely essential in a democracy," says their presence as a body has not been adequately scrutinized. Reviews of ethics and campaign contributions -- there have been many in recent years -- have been directed primarily at what legislators can and can't do.

The urgency of addressing the lobbyist presence arises this year for several reasons.

One of the most well-known lobbyists, Bruce C. Bereano, will ply his trade from a halfway house, having been convicted of mail fraud in a case arising from his advocacy for a lottery computer company.

Lobbying partners John R. Stierhoff and Gerard E. Evans also raised questions recently, when it was reported they steered a $9,000 real estate commission to Democratic Del. Tony E. Fulton of Baltimore last fall. The matter is likely to be examined by the legislature's ethics committee.

"There are lobbyists and legislators who have mistaken their roles," Stierhoff said during an interview before news of the real-estate transaction became known. "There are lines that are very easy to go over in this business."

While lobbyists have worked hard at pushing those boundaries, legislators also are culpable. Assemblies have been moved to reform the system by lobbyists who have found themselves squirming under pressure from legislators to help with fund raising or to serve as a "sponsor" -- someone to buy dinner.

Through it all, the image of the lobbyists -- hardly lofty to begin with -- has fallen further in the public's estimation.

Stierhoff, formerly an aide to Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and one of the more successful Annapolis lobbyists, sums up the dual reality this way: "We're both a vilified and accepted part of the landscape in Annapolis."

Or as lobbyist Ellen Valentino recently told a group of newly elected legislators' wives: "Sometimes when I read about lobbyists, I think, `My God, I ate my first-born child.' "

It's an undeserved rap, according to Rutgers University professor Alan Rosenthal, who says lobbyists make a vital contribution to the development of public policy.

The system works well, he says, because the good lobbyist knows he must find acceptable compromise between the needs of his client and the political needs of legislators.

"Without credibility and trust in the dealings among individuals, the process of lobbying would not work," says Rosenthal, who has written a book called "The Third House," which chronicles lobbying practices in a half-dozen states.

Maryland legislators often come to trust lobbyists as friends, advisers, role models and experts.

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