Corporations funding $500,000 tab for National Speakers Conference in Maryland

By John Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

More than 30 House speakers from across the country will be treated over the next four days to some of the best of what Maryland has to offer: a stay in one of Annapolis's swankiest hotels, a reception at the governor's mansion with a preeminent historian, a cruise on the Chesapeake Bay to an 185-year-old lighthouse, and a crab feast, historical re-enactment and fireworks display at Baltimore's Fort McHenry.

The tab for the 2010 National Speakers Conference -- hosted this year by Maryland House Speaker Michael E. Busch (D-Anne Arundel) -- is expected to top $500,000, organizers say. And the bills for it will be paid by a few dozen local and national corporations, almost all of which have business before legislatures in Maryland and other states. Those helping underwrite this year's program, for instance, include at least four companies with a large stake in the success of Maryland's fledgling slot-machine gambling program.

The annual conference brings together a small club of state House leaders and top aides, and is cast as an opportunity to swap tips about presiding over their chambers and to hear from experts about important issues of the day. Panelists this year will address topics including the national economy, higher education and why voters appear angry.

In exchange for their donations of up to $25,000, representatives of national and regional health-care, insurance and energy companies -- among other "corporate participants" -- will also get to attend many of the sessions and mingle with powerful lawmakers in more relaxed settings.

Busch said that for him, the conference provides a chance to network with fellow speakers and "a great opportunity to showcase Maryland."

But critics say the gathering is just one of a growing number of ways that moneyed interests are seeking to gain access and influence with policymakers, much like they do at national political party conventions every four years.

"For special interests, this is actually a bigger bang for their buck, because it's far more intimate," said Mary Boyle, a national spokeswoman for Common Cause, a public advocacy group. "They'll be spending four days with a very powerful group of people with a lot of reach across the country."

68 corporations

A list released last week by the State Legislative Leaders Foundation, a nonpartisan, nonprofit group coordinating the conference, included 68 "corporate participants" but did not identify the amount of their donations. Most of the corporations have a lobbying presence in multiple states. About two-thirds retain registered lobbyists in Annapolis.

Stephen Lakis, the foundation's leader, said most corporations gave no more than $10,000 and said the group's practices are similar to those of national associations of governors and mayors.

The gathering -- whose guest speakers include author and historian David McCullough and former Baltimore Orioles iron man Cal Ripken Jr. -- is shaping up to be one of the best-attended in the two decades that the organization has pulled them together, Busch said.

Promotional materials for the conference do not exactly hide its less-taxing events.

"While the educational components of the annual meeting are of utmost importance, we can't forget the fun stuff," reads a blurb in the most recent "Speaker to Speaker" newsletter, which also promotes opportunities for golf and tours of Maryland's "historic gems."

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