Plenty spent, study says, to keep air foul

The Political Game

Pollution: A watchdog group finds that huge campaign contributions help to thwart clean-air legislation.

July 13, 2004|By David Nitkin | David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

MARYLAND air ranks among the dirtiest in the nation, because efforts to clean it have been thwarted, in part, by huge campaign contributions and lobbying fees paid by utility companies and automobile manufacturers opposed to clean-air legislation, according to a new report from the watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland.

Legislation that would have helped clean the air by reducing coal-fired power plant emissions and mandating that hybrid or alternative-fuel vehicles make up 2 percent of auto sales failed during this year's General Assembly session.

The Common Cause study shows that the deep-pocketed groups that were the most vocal critics of the bills spent a combined $6.6 million on lobbying and campaign donations since 1999.

In examining the failure of legislation that would have compelled 15 power plants to reduce the sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and mercury they pump into the air, Common Cause examined the spending of Constellation Energy, Pepco, Allegheny Power and Mirant Corp.

Constellation spent $1.9 million on lobbying, and the company and its officers contributed $269,298 in campaign donations from 1999 to 2004, the group concluded. Pepco spent $1.2 million on lobbying, and gave $91,000 in campaign donations.

The utility companies run plants that would have incurred higher costs if the legislation passed.

Common Cause also tracked the spending of automobile dealers and manufacturers opposed to legislation that would tighten emission standards for vehicles sold in Maryland and require greater access to lower-emission vehicles.

Among the groups fighting the legislation, the Maryland New Car and Truck Dealers Association, the Washington Area New Automobile Dealers Association, General Motors and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spent a combined $1.6 million on lobbying since 1999.

The group's study does not draw a conclusive link between money and votes, and even some of the sponsors of the legislation don't go that far.

"I'm not willing to say that those contributions killed this bill," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat and sponsor of the automobile emissions bill.

Still, the study illustrates that the financial resources available to powerful interests often overwhelm the ability of grass-roots groups on the opposing side.

"Whatever impact these contributions have had - and they most likely have had some impact - our intention is to organize people who want easier access to cleaner cars, so that their voices and their contributions are heard more loudly than the industry," Bobo said.

Raynor's fellow Democrats may prove toughest critics

Former state elections chief Gene M. Raynor has completed a remarkable rehabilitation in the eyes of Maryland Republicans.

Last week, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. named Raynor, a Democrat, to the five-person state elections board.

"With nearly 40 years of experience in election administration, he will be a tremendous asset to the board and the citizens of Maryland," the Republican governor said in a statement.

But when Raynor was state elections administrator under Govs. William Donald Schaefer and Parris N. Glendening, Republicans wanted his head.

In late 1994, former GOP standard-bearer Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who came within 6,000 votes of defeating Glendening, called on Raynor to resign as state elections chief after a newspaper article revealed that an elections board employee who owned a Little Italy restaurant and other property with Raynor never showed up for work.

"Since the issues raised include a `phantom no-show employee' and the propriety of their outside employment and investments, ethical and legal issues are now of a great concern," Sauerbrey said at the time.

Two years later, the former chairwoman of the Maryland Republican Party, Joyce Lyons Terhes, also demanded Raynor's ouster after newspaper reports revealed that he fraudulently used an address in Harford County to obtain cheaper automobile insurance. Raynor is a Baltimore resident.

But now it may be Democrats who are asking the tough questions of Raynor.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller says Ehrlich reneged on a deal by naming Raynor to the elections board, instead of renominating Bobbie S. Mack, an African-American woman from Prince George's County who had the strong backing of Senate leaders.

Raynor will have a difficult time receiving Senate confirmation to the unpaid board position, Miller said.

Some of the past Republican criticism of Raynor could return to haunt Ehrlich's selection when the nomination is considered by the Senate next year. Until then, however, Raynor will be a voting member of the board.

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