ANNAPOLIS -- Maryland legislative candidates are receiving record contributions from special-interest groups, including several controlled by the state's top lobbyists, according to recent campaign contribution reports.
Through Aug. 26, seven top political action committees had given $700,000 to candidates for statewide office and the General Assembly, compared with $468,000 contributed in the 1986 campaign, according to reports filed with the state.
And that group, which includes organizations representing doctors, lawyers, real estate interests and educators, still had $387,000 left to give out before Tuesday's primary or the Nov. 6 general election.
The increase in giving comes amid a chorus of complaints from activists about the expanding influence of special-interest groups in the State House and an increased focus on the role of lobbyists in raising campaign funds. When lobbyists also become principal fund-raisers for candidates, critics contend, their influence is doubled.
Common Cause, a lobbying group opposed to PACs, said a recent survey of General Assembly candidates found majority support for new restrictions on PAC contributions and new disclosure requirements for fund-raising by lobbyists. Those and other revisions have been defeated repeatedly in the General Assembly, typically winning favor in the state Senate and dying because of opposition from House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. (D-Kent).
"PAC giving is going up dramatically since the last election," said Phil Andrews, Common Cause executive director in the state. "It's going to be two or three times what it was."
The pattern also alarms some legislators, particularly because of the links between PACs and the lobbyists who represent their interests in the General Assembly.
"It has been refined to an art form," said state Sen. Gerald W. Winegrad (D-Anne Arundel), an advocate of restricting campaign donations who does not accept PAC contributions. "There is an unholy triangle with the PACs at one point, that lobbyist at one, and the legislator at the other."
Gerard E. Evans, for example, the medical community's chief lobbyist in Annapolis, also advises Maryland Medical PAC on how to spend its money. The group has contributed $221,911 toward the current state elections, more than double what it gave in 1986. Top-earning lobbyist Bruce C. Bereano serves as an officer for six committees, including one named BEREANO-PAC, that have contributed about $33,000 to candidates.
"It's a trend that's ominous," said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), who has helped win approval of campaign finance changes in the Senate, and also accepted about $80,000 from political action committees this season. "Unless we come to grips with it in the near future, PAC contributions are going to escalate even more rapidly."
Evans, also a top fund-raiser for Miller, agreed that PAC contributions will grow "exponentially" because groups feel they must stay involved in politics or risk passage of burdensome regulations and laws.
In the last General Assembly session, for example, the medical community fought off legislation to regulate doctor's fees and to restrict physicians from referring patients to labs that they own.
Besides, he said, legislators want the money. "If they were not asking for it, we would not be giving it," Evans said.
Some major contributors appear to herald fights to come in the General Assembly. A PAC representing trial lawyers already has contributed $163,000 to lawmakers, in anticipation of a debate over ways to limit damage claims under automobile insurance coverage, a proposal traditionally opposed by trial lawyers and advocated by the insurance industry.
The trial lawyer PAC gave contributions of $1,000 each to 63 legislative candidates, the vast majority of them incumbents. It gave five candidates, including Miller, $2,500. And five candidates for the Senate, including four from Prince George's County, got $5,000 each.
In Maryland, individuals may give one candidate no more than $4,000 during an election cycle. There are no limits, however, on PAC contributions.
Political action committees were invented as a post-Watergate reform, allowing employees or firms that shared an agenda to pool their money and, theoretically, make individual contributions that much less influential. But now PAC contributions have become an issue themselves.
Annapolis lawyer George Manis, who is treasurer for three political action committees that have so far donated almost $30,000 on behalf of beer wholesalers, highway construction firms and the medical insurance industry, said the money does not sway votes, but is a way to reward friends and ensure a fair hearing.
"When you use the word 'lobbyist,' it connotes someone who is wheeling, dealing and buying votes," Manis said. "What I like is to consider myself a legislative adviser . . . . If that person treats me fairly, what I would try to do is help him."
Andrews estimated that as many as two dozen lobbyists are actively involved in PACs, and often raise additional funds on their own, buying tickets to legislators' events or encouraging their clients to do so, then presenting the checks in bundles.
"Lobbyists that control PAC contributions are lobbying with a checkbook in their back pocket," he said.