Republican lawmakers say they will raise $1 million to take on Democrats and give a jump-start to their efforts at making the GOP a force in Maryland's General Assembly.

The ambitious goal was outlined last week by top Republicans, who said they hope to reach out to small-business owners and entrepreneurs who feel stifled by years of Democratic dominance.

Over the last four-year election cycle, the Maryland Republican Legislators Committee raised only about $100,000. The new goal is 10 times that--and also significantly more than the $650,000 spent by a political action committee headed by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Prince George's), who spread that cash around to keep Democrats in control of the Senate.

The latest salvo from the Republicans sets Maryland on a course for further escalating the costs of legislative races. Democrats, who started this money-raising arms race, likely will respond in kind. And that's what the GOP expects.

"It's necessary to respond to that. We cannot go into the 2002 election cycle with only one bullet in our gun," said John Morgan, a former Republican delegate from Howard County who is chairman of the GOP fund-raising committee. "We are determined to not have a rerun of 1998," when the GOP held steady in the state Senate but lost five seats in the House of Delegates.

While taking a drubbing in last year's election, the Republicans did raise more money than they ever have before. The GOP legislators said they will build on the success of Republican gubernatorial candidate Ellen R. Sauerbrey, who raised $6.4 million for her challenge of Gov. Parris N. Glendening (D)--more than the governor himself was able to raise.

"In 1998, the party was able to demonstrate that many Marylanders were looking for a change; many, many Marylanders were willing to contribute if asked," Sauerbrey said.

Sauerbrey's chief fund-raiser, Baltimore business executive Richard Hugg will assist the GOP legislators. "It can be done, and it can be done rather easily," he said.

Under state law, political action committees are able to contribute $6,000 to each candidate. Miller was able to get around that last year by taking advantage of a loophole in the law that allows unlimited contributions to members of slates. He formed nearly every Senate district into one slate, allowing him to distribute cash however he saw fit.

Republicans attempted to change the law in 1998 to limit slate membership to those from the same county or legislative district, but failed.

Senate Minority Leader Martin G. Madden (R-Howard) said Republicans would again try to change the law during the next General Assembly session. "If that fails, we'll have to consider whether to form a slate in the future," he said.

A Jaunt to China

Right about now, several county officials from Maryland could be touring provinces around Beijing, learning how China has dealt with rapid growth in Sichuan, or maybe discussing the Three Gorges Dam, one of the largest construction projects in the world.

Howard County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray (D-East Columbia), president of the National Association of Counties, is leading a delegation of about a dozen county officials on a tour of China through Oct. 16. The group left Sunday.

Along with county leaders from Minnesota, Texas and Florida, the delegation includes Howard County Executive James N. Robey (D), Prince George's County Executive Wayne K. Curry (D) and Montgomery County Council Vice President Marilyn Praisner (D).

"It is important for America's counties to recognize the importance of developing lasting relationships with our friends to the east," Gray said during a news conference last week about the China trip.

As president of NACO, Gray's expenses for the trip are paid by the association. "We expect our officers to lead a delegation every year," said NACO spokesman Shawn Bullard. The group's Chinese hosts will pick up the tab for all in-country costs, and the rest of the delegation is responsible for expenses of getting to and from China. Praisner said she was paying for her air fare, visa and hotel stays along the way out of her own pocket. Curry could not be reached for comment Friday, and a spokesman for Curry did not know who was paying for his expenses.

Howard County spokeswoman Victoria Hastings Goodman said the county was paying about a quarter of Robey's total bill, basically covering a coach-class plane ticket. The group decided to fly business class, so Robey picked up the difference between a coach fare and the business fare. "It is typical that the county would pay for the executive's expenses on a business trip like that," Goodman said.

Robey's interest in going, Goodman said, was in "building relationships." Last year, NACO was host to the Chinese officials who are playing host to the American delegation this year.

Another NACO group went to China in 1997, but that delegation met mainly with Chinese national officials, and this one is focused more on local government in China.

In a telephone interview Friday, Praisner said she was interested in seeing Chinese enterprise zones and learning about telecommunications issues there.

And, she said, "I'm always looking for some possible opportunities for Montgomery County businesses."