There's plenty of cutthroat action as legislators jostle over which bills will pass and which will die during the 90-day General Assembly session in Annapolis each year.

But many consider the real blood sport to be the one that occurs among lobbyists, as a fairly small circle of well-connected insiders vie to land the top-paying clients.

The scorecard in this contest is the lobbyist earnings report, which will be compiled in coming days by the Maryland State Ethics Commission, as officials review hundreds of filings from lobbyists who plied their trade during the 2005 session, which ended in April.

While the official tallies have not been completed, a glance through the filings Friday signal that this was a bountiful year for a number of the state's top lobbyists, with several registering earnings in excess of $600,000.

Among them was William Pitcher, a longtime insider with tobacco and gambling clients, who has capitalized on a recent agreement to affiliate with the law firm of Ober, Kaler, Grimes & Shriver, which is where Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) worked before being elected to Congress. Pitcher's earnings totaled about $675,000, according to his reports.

Robert Enten, another veteran of the State House foyer, took in about $655,000, and Joel Rozner earned about $632,000, the reports said.

Presumably all the lobbyists want a spot on the top-earners list, but many say they'd just as soon avoid the top spot. Two past top earners, Gerard E. Evans and Bruce C. Bereano, faced intense scrutiny when they held that spot, and both wound up with felony convictions. Both were also back in the mix this year, with Bereano's take of more than $617,000 a sign that his practice is as strong as ever.

Evans, who reported earning $283,000, said he believes several factors have combined to make lobbying in Annapolis increasingly lucrative. For one, legislative issues are "getting more and more complex," and as a result, "people need more legislative counsel," he said.

While it appears that spending on lobbying by gambling firms declined this year, Evans said the fractious debate over medical malpractice insurance more than made up for the difference.

"Drug companies, insurance companies, lawyers, doctors -- they were all interested in the malpractice issue," Evans said.

The result: more business for everyone.

Good Answer!

The Maryland Board of Public Works took a break from its meeting last week to recognize the service of Arthur H. Hilsenrad, the deputy budget secretary who is retiring after serving under three governors.

Two of his former bosses -- Ehrlich and former governor William Donald Schaefer (D) -- sit on the board and had praise for what they said was Hilsenrad's ability to navigate treacherous political waters without seeming to make any enemies.

Ehrlich decided to put this assessment to the test by asking Hilsenrad to step forward and answer one key question:

"Who was the greatest governor you ever worked for?" Ehrlich asked, with a wink to Schaefer, who was to his right.

Hilsenrad fired back without hesitating: "He's seated at that table."