ANNAPOLIS – AAA representatives used a poll of area motorists to support proposed legislation before the Maryland General Assembly this session, but what they neglected to tell lawmakers is the information was partly paid for by federal funds from the State Highway Administration.
The organization lobbied several safe driving initiatives, including various bills aimed at curbing teen driving privileges.
The idea of a poll paid for by public funds and used by an organization to bolster a specific viewpoint doesn’t sit well with some legislators.
“I don’t think that is right,” said Delegate Peter Franchot, D-Montgomery. “There are two issues here, 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 aren’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 Republican Gov. Robert Ehrlich.
“If they were using it around Annapolis,” 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. SHA gave the AAA Foundation a grant for $13,500 in budget year 2004, 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 did not 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 for 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.
A spokeswoman 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 either refused to answer the question or didn’t know.
“We’ve done it for a number of years,” said AAA Mid-Atlantic Public Relations Specialist Amanda Knittle of the poll.
“It helps us get a handle on what people think on a number of issues related to transportation and safety,” Knittle said. “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 Chairwoman 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 McIntosh 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 non-partisan way,” McIntosh said. “It doesn’t seem like a partisan activity.”
House Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Sheila E. Hixson, D-Montgomery, isn’t so quick to dismiss the issue.
“I’d have to see the guidelines (of the grant application),” Hixson said. “It sounds suspect.”
Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog organization, also found the connections troubling.
“As a rule, money doled out by any agency should be for projects already approved or that have been officially approved,” said Common Cause Maryland Executive Director James Browning. “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 the money is given to a non-profit that company can do whatever they see fit with the funds, including not releasing the publicly funded poll to the public.
“There is no reason for us to say they did or didn’t do the right thing,” David Buck a spokesperson for SHA of releasing the data. “It is a decision up to AAA.”