ANNAPOLIS -- As a challenger, state Sen. Janice Piccinni had an uphill battle in her campaign last fall in Baltimore County.
But she was not without friends. A political action committee representing trial lawyers forked over $11,000 in campaign contributions, $5,000 of it after her bitter Democratic primary battle.
The total from the lawyers' group, which was gearing up to fight a no-fault insurance proposal in the General Assembly this year, was nearly a third of her PAC contributions.
"One reason they supported my campaign isn't because they convinced me," said Piccinni. "It was because I was against no-fault."
No-fault insurance generally requires that a motorist's own insurance pay damages and limits some kinds of financial recovery and the ability to sue in court. It also helped produce a contribution gusher for candidates as the current legislative session approached.
Groups opposed to no-fault -- principally lawyers and doctors -- contributed more than $500,000 to state candidates during the last four-year election cycle, almost one-sixth of all PAC giving. Meanwhile, special interest committees representing insurance companies and business gave smaller but still substantial contributions to candidates supporting no-fault.
The trial lawyers "identified people favorable to their position on a number of issues, as everyone else in politics does, and raised a significant amount of money," said Dennis C. McCoy, a lobbyist who advised the trial lawyers on contributions. "Is that going to carry the day on this issue? I don't think it is. On the merits, this issue doesn't even need that kind of political involvement."
Such political involvement, however, is the kind that has broadened sentiment in the General Assembly to limit PAC contributions and restrict the involvement of lobbyists in raising campaign funds. PAC giving to winning General Assembly candidates rose 71 percent, to $2.3 million, last year. It also climbed to nearly one-fourth of all contributions, according to Common Cause.
"The amounts raise questions about whether the contributions will have undue influence on the legislative process," said Phil Andrews, executive director of Common Cause in Maryland. "It encourages candidates to curry favor with those groups to finance their campaigns."
Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's) and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr. (D-Kent) for the first time have said they will support curbs on PAC contributions.
After Gov. William Donald Schaefer, Miller received the most PAC money, collecting more than $100,000 for a token race in his southern Prince George's district. Miller, a lawyer who opposes no-fault and who will determine which committee handles the controversial topic, got $28,125 from the proposal's opponents.
PACs came into being in the 1970s as a campaign-finance change designed to allow individuals to pool their resources so they could compete with the affluent in the political arena. But Miller says that the advantages of PACs are being outweighed by the fact that they have allowed large donors to dominate campaign financing.
As elsewhere, the involvement of PACs in campaigns has been growing tremendously in Maryland, which has no limit on the size of contributions and allows candidates to transfer money to other candidates.
The big three PACs -- representing lawyers, real estate agents and doctors -- each gave about $225,000 to state candidates for last year's elections. But questions have been raised about not just where the money is coming from, but where it is going. Five of every six dollars went to incumbents, and dozens of contributions to individual candidates exceeded $4,000.
Heavy giving by real estate interests appears closely linked to their opposition to Schaefer's plan to limit growth outside urban areas.
But the battle over no-fault insurance was the major animating factor in election giving. And the members of the legislative committees with greatest control over the proposal were among the beneficiaries.
A no-fault bill, when introduced, is expected to be sent to the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee or the Finance Committee. The 11 Finance Committee members got $21,600 from lawyer groups, $26,400 from doctors and $12,600 from the insurance industry.
Miller predicts that a no-fault plan would be defeated in either committee because most members think it would be bad for consumers.
"No-fault generated more contributions than any other issue," Common Cause's Andrews said. "If outcomes are decided by how much money is put in by one side on an issue, then the opponents of no-fault clearly have an edge."
Piccinni sees the issue from a different angle. As a former head of the state teachers association, she has helped form several PACs.
"I feel if they limit PACs, they'll hurt challengers even more," she said. "We've got a lot of PACs put together for the little people."