ANNAPOLIS, JUNE 1 -- More than $225,000 in lobbying talent was brought to bear during the Maryland General Assembly this year on one topic: a bill that would make it easier to sue the manufacturers and suppliers of asbestos.
The bill, which pitted labor and local governments against big business, ultimately was vetoed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer.
But before meeting that fate, it provided a bonanza for lobbyists, whose influence -- and fees -- have been rising sharply at the State House in recent years. Total lobbying costs reached $10.6 million during the year that ended Oct. 31.
Based on initial reviews of lobbying reports filed this week, the asbestos-related measure appears to have drawn more lobbyists' interest than any other bill during the 1990 session, with more than a dozen lobbyists reporting fees for trying to influence lawmakers.
"That issue was of interest to a broad group," said John E. O'Donnell, executive director of the State Ethics Commission, who went through lobbyist reports as they were filed on Thursday's deadline.
"It was the most frequently mentioned topic on the reports."
One lobbyist, Franklin Goldstein, reported receiving more than $48,000 from asbestos manufacturers and suppliers who opposed the bill.
Meanwhile, a four-member governmental affairs law firm headed by Alan M. Rifkin, Schaefer's former chief legislative aide, received $40,000 from a coalition that supported the bill.
But spending on the asbestos-related bill still represented only a fraction of the millions of dollars used to coax Maryland lawmakers during their 90-day session.
The top-earning lobbyist, Bruce C. Bereano, said he was paid $752,014 by 60 clients during the reporting period, Nov. 1 through April 30.
At least seven other lobbyists were paid more than $200,000 during those six months.
Phil Andrews, executive director of Common Cause, said his organization thinks money plays too large a role in the Maryland legislative process.
"We're all for lobbying until it distorts the process," Andrews said today. "We don't feel that the groups that have the most money should have the most clout. At this point, we and others think they do."
O'Donnell said today that the number of groups with lobbyists will set a record this year. And the reports are expected to show, once they are tallied, that spending has reached a new high.
"There used to be a fairly limited number of issues where a significant amount of fees could be attributed to them," O'Donnell said, adding that he considers fees from $5,000 to $20,000 in that category. "Now, there's a much broader menu of types of bills lobbied for those kind of fees."
For example, the Crescent Cities Jaycees Foundation, a nonprofit organization that operates charitable gambling operations in Prince George's County, hired lobbyist Joseph A. Schwartz III and paid him $21,868.20 to fight moves in the legislature to limit the number of nights that "Las Vegas Nights" could be held in the county. The bill failed.
Nearly $60,000, much of it paid to Schwartz, was spent by bottlers and beverage wholesalers in their attempt to limit the ability of county governments to put a mandatory returnable tax on containers. A modified bill was approved, but it, too, was vetoed by Schaefer.
About $100,000 was spent on hiring lobbyists who argued the merits of expanding interstate banking, an issue that annually goes nowhere in the General Assembly. This year was no exception.
A similar amount was paid to Bereano, former governor Marvin Mandel and Rifkin's firm by computer companies vying to get the next state contract to provide equipment and services to the state lottery. Little happened in the legislature, because a decision, which could be worth $100 million over the life of the computer contract, rests mostly with the Schaefer administration.
(For the 1990 Maryland Legislative Session)
Bruce C. Bereano.............$752,014
Ira C. Cooke.................$355,438
Alan M. Rifkin...............$349,165
James J. Doyle Jr. ..........$261,552
Source: Reports filed with the Maryland Ethics Commission.