Maryland lawmaker says company funding of ‘Astroturf’ ad campaigns must be disclosed

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Under a measure sponsored by House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery) and 14 others, companies with million-dollar government contracts would be required to disclose the contributions they make to advocacy organizations.

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An influential lawmaker is taking aim at what he sees as “astroturf” lobbying by big government contractors.

Under a measure sponsored by House Majority Leader Eric Luedtke (D-Montgomery) and 14 others, companies with million-dollar government contracts would be required to disclose the contributions they make to advocacy organizations.

“It’s a transparency bill that lets the Maryland public know whether people who advocate for major taxpayer-funded projects in their community have a financial interest in the project in question,” Luedtke told members. of two House committees at a March 10 hearing.

On Saturday, the House of Delegates gave preliminary approval to the bill, which is expected to go to a final vote in the chamber on Monday.

Nationally, it is common for companies seeking a government contract to fund tax-exempt nonprofits. Organizations formed under section 501(c)(4) of the federal tax law do not have to disclose their donors, and their generic-sounding names offer no indication as to who is behind them. The practice is less common at the state level.

Luedtke said the broadcast and internet advertising campaigns these groups sponsor “create the appearance of a grassroots movement when in truth the support comes from a select group of special interests who have a financial interest in a project”.

His bill would require companies with government contracts of $1 million or more to disclose to the state Board of Elections any donations they make to an advocacy organization.

Champe McCulloch, head of the Maryland chapter of the Associated General Contractors of America, told lawmakers that Luedtke’s bill was intended to deter companies from engaging in public dialogue about policy.

“This bill is simply inappropriate and places a burden on entrepreneurs,” he said. “It is intended to chill their speech. It is a contribution that amounts to speaking, as recognized by the Supreme Court.

Luedtke did not identify by name any advocacy organization he considers “astroturf,” but he offered a “hypothetical” scenario regarding “a proposal to build a bridge between St. Mary’s County and the County of Somerset” in which a state contractor who hopes to build the bridge funds an advocacy organization called “People for Southern Crossing”.

“This company would still be able to create this organization, fund it,” the lawmaker said. “They would just have to state that they were funding it, so the public would have that knowledge.”

The Hogan administration happens to be pursuing a plan to rebuild the American Legion Bridge, which connects Luedtke’s home county, Montgomery, to Fairfax County, Virginia. The state’s plan would also add controversial variable-price toll lanes to the Capital Beltway and Interstate 270.

Traffic Relief Now, an organization headed by Doug Mayer, former director of communications for Governor Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R), was created last year to mobilize public support for the plan. Traffic Relief Now did not disclose its contributors.

In an interview, Mayer said he would support a disclosure bill if it applied to public sector unions — “including AFSCME and the teachers union” — as well as businesses. “A lot of politicians want transparency to only work one way, but what’s good for the goose is good for the gander,” he said.

If Luedtke doesn’t include the unions, Mayer added, “he’s just a partisan hack like the rest of us.” Republicans tried to amend the bill in committee and on the floor to include unions, but those efforts failed.

“I would vote for this bill if it included all parties that practice this practice,” Del said. Nicholaus R. Kipke (R-Anne Arundel). “I think it’s important for people to know who is behind the dollars that fund PR campaigns around certain projects.”

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