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Tax dollars paid for AAA's driving law lobby poll

By SARAH ABRUZZESE, Capital News Service

AAA used a poll partly paid for by taxpayers to lobby for its driving initiatives before the General Assembly in the last session, raising concerns among surprised Maryland lawmakers.

The organization pushed several safe-driving initiatives, including various
bills designed to curb teenagers' driving privileges.

But the idea of a poll paid for with public funds and used by a private organization to bolster a specific viewpoint doesn't sit well with some legislators.

"I don't think that is right," said Del. Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery. "... Should state or federal money be used to fund a poll that is then used to lobby us? That is like paying a reporter to get favorable views."

The origin of the funds used to pay for the poll isn't apparent in a booklet that included the survey information put out by AAA Mid-Atlantic titled "2005 Report to the Maryland General Assembly." Nor was the funding source disclosed in any news release from the company.

Representatives of AAA did say they disclosed the funding at a news conference with Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

"If they were using it around Annapolis," Mr. Franchot said of the poll data, "they should have disclosed (the funding) prominently in the information."

The poll cost more than $40,000, said John B. Townsend II, the manager of public and government relations for AAA Mid-Atlantic. The State Highway Administration gave the AAA Foundation a grant for $13,500 last year to use as it saw fit.

The survey was conducted by Research/Strategy/Management of McLean, Va. It queried licensed motorists, both AAA members and non-members, from as far away as Richmond and Delaware. More than 400 of the 1,316 respondents were Marylanders.

AAA didn't release full results of the poll and gave only selected information to lawmakers. For instance, a news release provided percentages for all poll questions except one about the level of support for the Inter-County Connector.

"The majority of the respondents favor (ICC) construction," according to the AAA Mid-Atlantic release. A similar story was told in the 2005 report.

"Maryland drivers voiced overwhelming support for a project that would address the growing gridlock in Montgomery County," according to the report.

Amanda Knittle, a spokesman for AAA Mid-Atlantic, provided the missing information, saying 52 percent of Marylanders polled favored building the ICC, 17 percent were opposed and 31 percent refused to answer the question or didn't know.

"We've done it for a number of years," she said of the poll. "It helps us get a handle on what people think on a number of issues related to transportation and safety, so that we, as we lobby at the state level, can best represent what we see as the interests and needs of Maryland motorists to be."

House Environmental Matters Committee Chairman Maggie McIntosh, D Baltimore, said use of such a poll is in keeping with other reports presented to committees, like those from the Department of Legislative Services.

And she didn't see anything wrong with the group using the data to back up its agenda.

"I would imagine this poll was conducted in a very nonpartisan way," Ms. McIntosh said. "It doesn't seem like a partisan activity."

House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Sheila E. Hixson, D Montgomery, wasn't so quick to dismiss the issue.

"I'd have to see the guidelines (of the grant application)," she said. "It sounds suspect."

Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog organization, also found the connection troubling.

"As a rule, money doled out by any agency should be for projects already approved or that have been officially approved," said James Browning, the group's executive director. "If, for example, this poll becomes a campaign tool for the governor or somebody else who wants to build more roads, then what you have is a political campaign aided and abetted by a federal grant."

This was the first SHA grant the company received. SHA representatives said that once money is given to a nonprofit organization, the group can do whatever it wants with the funds, including not releasing the publicly funded poll to the public.