October 13, 2010

Nonprofit groups aim to influence candidates to help their causes

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By Barbara Pash
For MarylandReporter.com

When candidates Martin O’Malley and Bob Ehrlich appeared together before the Maryland Disabilities Forum Monday, they tried to outdo each other in touting ways they had helped people with disabilities as governor.

The forum by a coalition of diverse groups on disabilities was the kind of influence on top policymakers many other interest groups are striving for this election year.

United Seniors of Maryland, a coalition of senior citizen groups, is backing measures that improve or maintain services and programs for the elderly. But Ted Meyerson, president of United Seniors, said the major issue they must confront is the state’s $1.5 budget deficit in the coming year.

“The only legislation that will get passed [in the 2011 General Assembly] will have no fiscal impact,” Meyerson said.

Because of the budget crunch, Meyerson is on the lookout for possible budget cuts to the Department of Aging, which runs programs such as adult day care and senior centers.

“If they cut those programs, people will get hurt,” he said. “We’ve talked to the budget people and the candidates know our issues.”

Dime-a-drink

Vinnie DeMarco, head of Health Care for All, the Maryland Citizens’ Health Initiative, spent $40,000 to air a radio ad comparing the two gubernatorial candidates’ stand on health care. The group was the leading advocate of the 2007 legislation O’Malley introduced doubling the tax on a pack of cigarettes from $1 to $2 — 10 cents a cigarette. The money went to support an expansion of Medicaid health insurance to the working poor.

“We want a commitment from Ehrlich not to go back on that law,” DeMarco said.

DeMarco is also looking for the next General Assembly to hike alcohol taxes a dime-a-drink for the same purpose, and has gotten many candidates to sign a pledge to do so. “We are close to having a majority in the House and the Senate to back this,” he said.

Advocates for people with developmental disabilities have supported the tax hike so some of the money would be dedicated to increasing state aid for their services. But the issue was not brought up at Monday’s disabilities forum.

David Ward, the forum’s chair, said the tax increase has divided some people in the disabilities community, who believe they should be advocating for long-term solutions, not “a Band-Aid” for any one group.

Free market groups

Americans for Prosperity is a grassroots free market advocacy group with very different goals. Executive Director Dave Schwartz said the group’s main goals for the next governor are job growth and a business-friendly atmosphere.

“That means lowering taxes for individuals and small businesses,” Schwartz said of the goals. “The current administration has not proven to be job creators, and they are interested in [collecting] taxes from businesses.”

Business groups such as the Maryland Chamber of Commerce, the Greater Baltimore Committee and the Greater Washington Board of Trade have also weighed in on issues, particularly greater funding for transportation needs.

The state chamber and other groups, such as the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, have separate political action committees which contribute campaign funds directly to candidates.

Programs with price tags

Not all nonprofits believe that only cost-neutral bills have a chance this legislative session.

The Maryland Association of Nonprofit Organization lists its number one priority as preserving services to the public and communities, said Henry Bogdan, public policy chief.

“We will support revenue measures that we feel are reasonable in light of the [state’s] fiscal situation,” said Bogdan. The group is willing to entertain some cuts in order for the state to gain additional revenues.

Brad Heavner, head of Environment Maryland, said the environmental community is pursuing three broad areas: clean energy, Chesapeake Bay restoration and land preservation.

“We will refine [the areas] with specific points as we get closer to the General Assembly session,” said Heavner. His group joined the Sierra Club, Clean Water Action and the Maryland League of Conservation Voters in endorsing O’Malley.

Heavner said that some measures have a price tag while others save money. “It’s a mixed bag. You have to look at each program individually,” he said. He noted that programs for energy efficiency and renewable energy will save money, but retrofitting of parking lots and urban areas to curb pollution from stormwater runoff will cost money.

Advocates for Children and Youth recently conducted a survey that showed a majority of the public is willing to support cost-neutral proposals to improve services for children and families. But the survey also showed support for proposals that cost money as well.

Melissa Rock, ACY’s child welfare director, said there was widespread support for educational proposals such as more professional training for teachers, tutoring for struggling students, counseling for juvenile offenders and pre-kindergarten for non-English-speaking students.

“All of them require spending money,” she said.

Religious nonprofits

Religious nonprofits have a different focus. At the Baltimore Jewish Council, which co-sponsored Monday’s televised debate between Ehrlich and O’Malley, executive director Arthur Abramson said the group is hammering out its legislative agenda but social issues will be an important part.

“We are concerned about immigration policy, that we don’t discriminate,” said Abramson. He said his group has met with Ehrlich and O’Malley’s chief of staff to express their interests.

Before the primary election, the Maryland Catholic Conference conducted a detailed candidates’ survey. It is now re-canvassing the candidates for the general election. The survey, which is posted on its website, includes stands on such diverse issues as abortion funding, end-of-life issues, stem cell research, housing, marriage and immigration.

“We want to inform the candidates and voters of the areas of interest to the Catholic Church of Maryland,” said spokesperson Kathy Dempsey.

Editor Len Lazarick contributed to this story.