Election law reform pact reached Changes include limit on lobbyists

January 26, 1991|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The General Assembly's presiding officers said yesterday that they have tentatively agreed to support a package of election-law changes that could limit the influence lobbyists have in financing Maryland campaigns.

Both House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said details of the proposals are still being worked out by their aides, and may not be made public for another week.

But Mr. Miller said that in addition to restrictions on lobbyists, the package of bills is likely to include proposals to place limits on contributions from political action committees, to restrict transfers of money from one campaign fund to another, and to strengthen disclosure requirements for lobbyists and candidates alike in campaign finance reporting.

Mr. Mitchell, who in recent years has blocked campaign finance reform in the House, acknowledged that he and the Senate president have reached "general agreement on some issues." But he cautiously declined to go as far as Mr. Miller in saying what the package of bills is likely to include.

The House speaker has argued against the necessity of campaign financing reform, but he said yesterday that he changed his mind after reflecting on the increasingly high cost of running legislative campaigns during the 1990 election.

Both he and Mr. Miller stressed that something must be done to change the growing public perception that legislative lobbyists are too heavily involved in raising money for lawmakers, who then must sit in judgment of the issues those same lobbyists bring before them.

"We're having our staff work to find ways to divorce lobbyists from campaign financing in a way that is constitutional and not offensive to anyone," said Mr. Miller, a lawyer and former chairman of the Senate's Judicial Proceedings Committee. "We're not trying to single out lobbyists. There are only one or two cases of clear abuse. It is unfortunate we have to legislate for all of them."

The Senate president said the problem of undue influence from special interest groups is one that is shared by legislatures throughout the country, including Congress.

"The severity of the situation was brought home to the whole nation as they watched five United States senators tried by their peers for misuse of campaign contributions," Mr. Miller said. He was referring to the hearings by the Senate ethics committee into allegations that five senators pressured savings and loan regulators on behalf of the owner of a troubled S&L who, in exchange, donated substantial sums to their political campaigns.

Mr. Miller also acknowledged it may be politically easier to push through such controversial changes, which affect all 188 members of the General Assembly in different ways, in the first year of a term rather than the last.

Deborah Povich, assistant director of Common Cause/Maryland, said her citizens' advocacy group was particularly encouraged by Mr. Mitchell's change of heart.

But Common Cause, like legislative leaders, must wait to see the language of any bill before offering its support, she said, noting that it could not support an effort to limit PAC contributions last year because the proposed $8,000 limit was too high.

"Our goal is to see a lessening of the interest in special-influence money, more competitive elections and an increased trust by the electorate in the process," Ms. Povich said.

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