Panel in House approves curbs on gifts by PACs

March 13, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The erstwhile graveyard of campaign finance reform in the House of Delegates gave life yesterday to three bills designed to take lobbyists out of political fund raising.

The reform package -- which is given a strong chance of passage -- would restrict political action committee contributions for the first time in Maryland and increase personal contribution limits. It would require lobbyists to account in far more detail for virtually all of their spending -- naming the legislators they entertained and the corporate clients who paid the tabs.

The Committee on Constitutional and Administrative Law amended one of the bills to reduce the maximum political action committee contribution in a legislative race to $4,000 -- half the $8,000 suggested by House and Senate leaders.

The lower limit was set after at least 71 members of the House -- enough to pass a bill on the House floor -- signed a letter to the committee recommending it.

During the past several years, this same committee has witnessed the death of similar bills -- with House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, acting as chief executioner.

Yesterday, though, the committee enthusiastically passed three bills that were co-authored by Mr. Mitchell and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's. Sponsorship by the presiding officers plus the apparent rank-and-file support for tighter PAC limits make the bills' chances for passage this year better than ever before.

The House speaker and the Senate president -- and many individual members of the General Assembly -- say the voters are demanding assurances that the legislature is run by elected representatives -- not by the corporations and their lobbyists who do business in Annapolis.

While many members of the Assembly have said they favor the billsas a response to the "perception" that money talks too loudly in Annapolis, others say voters are profoundly troubled by the escalating cost of campaigns in Maryland -- fueled in some cases by lobbyists in search of legislative favors.

"I congratulate the committee for its work -- particularly the chairwoman," the speaker said, referring to Delegate Anne S. Perkins, D-Baltimore.

He also congratulated Delegate John J. Bishop, R-Baltimore County, who had proposed campaign finance changes.

Mr. Bishop's bills are likely to die in favor of the speaker's, but his ideas were praised as helpful to the evolution of the measures.

Delegate Leon Billings, D-Montgomery, a new member of the committee, hailed the bills' leveling of political power between PACs and individuals.

Under current law, an individual may contribute no more than $2,000 in any four-year election cycle to a single candidate -- and no more than a total of $5,000 to all races. Because of a loophole permitting transfers of funds between committees, PACs may currently contribute without limit.

Under the bills passed by the committee yesterday, PACs could contribute no more than $4,000 to a candidate's campaign.

An individual giver could contribute up to $5,000 to a single candidate and a total of $10,000 to all candidates combined over a four-year election cycle.

The bills bar lobbyists from man aging PACs, as several lobbyists do now. Bruce C. Bereano, the top money earner among Annapolis lobbyists, controls about 10 PACs, including his personal "Bereano PAC." All of that PAC activity by Mr. Bereano -- who has declined to comment on the bills -- would be stopped if the bills passed in their current form, according to Delegate Perkins.

She said the legislature had to be careful not to breach constitutional protections as it crafted the bills. Since the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that contributions are equivalent to speech -- and are thus protected by the First Amendment -- lobbyists' participation in contributions can only be limited when there is a "compelling state interest," the chairwoman said.

Phil Andrews, lobbyist for Maryland Common Cause, said the bills took an important step toward control of "what most people see as influence peddling here -- lavish wining and dining."

Equally important, Mr. Andrews said, the laws would reduce pressure that some lobbyists resent from legislators encouraging them to buy fund-raising tickets.

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