William Pitcher is just one of many Annapolis lobbyists who get them: invitations to political candidates' fund-raisers, which regularly arrive by the dozen at his office addressed to his clients. Pitcher, like many of his lobbying colleagues, then dutifully passes them on, using his secretary's time and his law firm's stationery and paying for the postage.
"I become a campaign worker for them," he said of those candidates soliciting his clients. "It's a pain."
Because lobbyists are so frequently put upon like that, they are being enlisted as unlikely allies by advocates of public financing of political campaigns in Maryland. Using taxpayer dollars to pay for campaigns of qualifying candidates would reduce all those fund-raisers and special interest influence, those advocates argue.
"They feel like they're being shaken down by guys asking for money," said House Majority Leader John A. Hurson (D-Montgomery), who is among those pushing public financing. "It'll be hard to get them to go public, [but] I think they would be a fabulous lobby."
As the cost of running for office increases and lawmakers spend more time fund-raising, advocates say the time is ripe to expand public financing in Maryland, especially with the state racking up huge budget surpluses.
The current program is available only to gubernatorial contenders and has had little success because many candidates say it does not offer enough money. Public financing advocates are turning their attention to legislative races, pushing for appropriations to make tax dollars available to General Assembly candidates.
Publicly financed legislative campaigns have been approved in Vermont, Maine, Massachusetts and Arizona, although none of those states has been through an election under the new system. Oregon and Missouri will have ballot questions on the issue next year, and four states in addition to Maryland have legislation pending.
Details of the proposals vary, but public financing in essence would have taxpayer dollars pay most of a candidate's campaign costs. In exchange, candidates agree to a spending cap. Candidates for the Maryland legislature would qualify for the money by showing they could raise seed money on their own. Qualifying would be based not on the amount of money raised but on the number of contributors, a method intended to show a level of grass-roots rather than big-bucks support.
Those who don't want to abide by a spending cap would be free to raise money on their own. But advocates say that if public finance programs are ample enough, few will choose that option.
One problem with Maryland's system to publicly finance gubernatorial contenders, the advocates say, is that it is funded by an unsteady revenue source, in this case by people who designate a small amount of their state income tax refund. That has meant that the fund doesn't have much money to offer.
Advocates, including Common Cause/Maryland, say that a steady funding source is necessary and that it would cost less than $3 million a year to establish a fund to pay for legislative campaigns.
"I think the public at large would regain some trust in public officials if they didn't have to read stories about big money and where it comes from," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George's), who has pushed a public financing proposal for the past several years.
Pinsky said he would like to see lobbyists join the crusade because they are often the targets of many fund-raising appeals. Many lobbyists are asked not only to pass on invitations to their clients, but also feel compelled to buy tickets themselves, with many contributing the maximum allowed by law. Lobbyists are forbidden in Maryland from recommending which candidates their clients should support unless the client asks them for advice.
The elder statesman of the lobbying corps, James Doyle, said he believes public financing is worth considering, especially since the legislature has just banned lobbyists from entertaining individual lawmakers with meals and drinks.
"If they feel we can't engage with them socially, it's even more nefarious for us to buy tickets for their events," Doyle said. "It seems the pressure [to make contributions] is always there. If they can cut the pressure, that would be welcome and good for the system."
Pitcher said fund-raisers offer networking opportunities that he would not want to lose. "An awful lot of my clients would be all for it," he said. "But others will think it's impinging on their right to participate as they have in the past."
Debate on campaign finance reform during the next General Assembly session will come at a time when candidates are engaging in virtually perpetual fund-raising. Reports to state election officials last month showed that the leading Democratic contenders for governor already have collected about $2.5 million for a race that is still three years away. Their early lead in fund-raising will make it difficult for other candidates--other than those who are independently wealthy--to mount viable campaigns.
Legislative candidates are raising funds year-round, too, except for incumbents, who are required by law to take a break during the General Assembly session from mid-January to mid-April. And the candidates are charging more and more for their fund-raisers. Some freshman lawmakers, who have little clout in Annapolis, are charging $100 or more for their events.
Del. John F. Wood Jr. (D-St. Mary's) is chairman of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee, which would oversee any campaign finance legislation. A prodigious fund-raiser who collected and spent more money in the last campaign cycle that any other local or state candidate in Southern Maryland, Wood said that he is concerned about the use of public money for campaigns and questioned whether any changes were necessary. He noted that the legislature had in the past two years been tackling new ethics requirements for legislators and reviewing laws governing lobbyists.
"I wonder whether we're moving too fast on these different programs," he said. "I don't see any problems with the current [campaign finance] law and what people do and what they can't do."
House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. (D-Allegany) also said that he's not sure public financing is necessary but that he did want a review of campaign finance laws, calling it the next logical step after the reviews of legislative ethics and lobbying laws.
But he added that he is concerned that the increasing costs of campaigns eventually would require some sort of public funding.
"We're going to price campaigns out of the marketplace," he said. "When we reach a certain point, the consensus will start to gel for this type of reform."