Election gifts flow to those in power

A few top lawmakers get most donations, new data indicate

February 17, 2002|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

Maryland's campaign finance system operates more like a protection plan for incumbent politicians and the business interests who buy access to them, with corporations concentrating their investments on lawmakers who wield the most power in Annapolis, according to new studies that examine four years' worth of state elections data.

Donations flow most heavily to a relatively small number of legislative leaders who seldom face serious election challenges, the studies found. Without competition, top lawmakers are often free to redistribute funds to their colleagues, cementing their positions of influence.

Much of the cash is contributed by a handful of groups, including health care, lawyers and builders, whose interests are frequently the subjects of bills in the state capital.

"The pattern is clear: These business contributions that go overwhelmingly to incumbents are first and foremost designed to influence legislation, not election outcomes," said Paul S. Herrnson, a University of Maryland, College Park professor and director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship, one of the studies' authors. "Business interests are primarily concerned with gaining access to legislators who can influence the policy-making process."

Though corporate executives are typically closer in ideology to the Republican Party, Herrnson notes that in Maryland they make most of their contributions to Democrats, whose party holds majorities in both houses and dominates the legislative agenda.

The studies analyzed about 150,000 campaign contributions during the 1998 election cycle. For the first time, they identified donors' occupations or economic interests where possible.

Undertaken by the Center for American Politics and Citizenship and the Progressive Maryland Education Fund, an advocacy group pushing for public campaign financing, the two analyses found that:

The average General Assembly incumbent candidate received about three times as much as the average challenger. Senate candidates in uncontested races, on average, raised more than those facing credible challengers.

Most of the money to incumbents went to those with the most influence - committee chairmen and party leaders. Sixteen of the state Senate's 41 members received 50 percent of the contributions that went to Senate incumbents. Three of the 16 faced competitive races.

Of the $16.7 million collected by General Assembly candidates for the 1998 election, $5.9 million was from business-related interests, more than from any other source, including individuals, political parties and candidate self-funding.

A few industries dominate the giving. Health care groups, lawyers and lobbyists, and real estate and construction groups and executives gave $2.8 million during the 1998 cycle - 48 percent of corporate donations.

Because Maryland's campaign donation limit is higher than those for some other states and the federal government, small numbers of donors can disproportionately influence the funding of campaigns. Thirty-one percent of donations to legislative candidates were made in amounts greater than $500; 19 percent was raised in amounts larger than $1,000.

"Money is flowing into this State House, and it is corrupting the process," said Del. John Adams Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat who wants to create a commission to study public campaign financing. "Anybody who says it's not is wearing rose-color glasses. I think big corporations and big donors not only buy access, but they steer legislation."

Large donations from businesses and other interest groups begin accumulating well before elections, having the effect of dissuading opposition at the ballot box.

Incumbents in the House of Delegates raised more than $6 million before the 1998 election year began and before most challengers had announced their candidacies.

Some findings contradict common sense but strengthen the link between incumbency, power and large donors. It might seem that contested races should cost more than noncompetitive ones, but that's often not the case in Maryland.

For example, Senate candidates in uncontested races raised an average of about 5 percent more than the amounts raised by candidates in competitive races during the 1998 cycle - $88,229 vs. $83,682.

Once they've raised sufficient funds for their own uses, Maryland lawmakers can spread money to other candidates, cementing their leadership and power.

During the last election cycle, candidates transferred $466,706 to other politicians. Top among those transferring funds to their colleagues were Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, chairman of the Finance Committee, who distributed $21,800 of the $513,164 he raised, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, who gave out $16,350 of his $480,270.

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