Ardent Assembly reforms on PACs give Miller pause

March 28, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The Senate president wanted to put the brakes on campaign fund raising in Maryland -- but he didn't want to be thrown through the windshield.

Having joined House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, in proposing an $8,000 limit on contributions by political action committees, Sen. Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, has watched with alarm as members of the House of Delegates -- and even one of his own committees -- lowered his ceiling by half, to $4,000.

A major citizens lobby, Maryland Common Cause, applauded the change as essential reform. Legislators -- normally quite sensitive about efforts to interfere in their fund raising -- said they cut the president's figure because they were convinced that big-spending PACs were sowing seeds of disgust and alienation among voters.

Partly as a result of the lower PAC limit proposal, however, Mr. Miller has kept the so-called reform bills -- both the Senate and the House versions -- in the Senate Committee on Economic and Environmental Affairs since March 19.

With fewer than 10 days remaining in the Assembly session, the bills introduced by Mr. Miller with great fanfare early in the session now appear headed for life-and-death debate or radical surgery on the Senate floor.

The possibility of a heavily amended measure returning to the House at the end of the session could lead to deadlock -- and no reform at all, several senators have suggested.

Mr. Miller said yesterday that he would meet soon with his committee to move a version of the bills toward passage, probably beginning early next week.

He said he remained confident that the final product would be a "solid" advance over current campaign finance practice.

Phil Andrews, director of Maryland Common Cause, praises the Miller-Mitchell package overall, but he says the difference between a PAC limit of $4,000 and $8,000 is the difference between "real reform and cosmetic reform."

Mr. Miller argues that the limit must be set at $8,000 so that legislators can keep pace with what they say are soaring campaign costs. He and other senators say the maximum must be one the state can "grow into," according to Sen. Michael J. Collins, D-Baltimore County, chairman of the subcommittee on campaign finance.

But Mr. Andrews says the cost of campaigns is driven higher by the mere availability of PAC money, floated by parties with the aim of electing friendly legislators and ultimately influencing legislation.

"Limit PACs and you'll help reduce the costs," Mr. Andrews said. "Set the limit at $8,000 and campaign costs will continue to grow into that figure for the rest of this century."

In the last four-year election cycle, he said, only two candidates received $8,000 or more from a single PAC -- Mr. Miller himself, who got $13,050 from Maryland Medical PAC, and Sen. Janice Piccinini, D-Baltimore County, who got $11,000 from Maryland Legal PAC. About 20 legislators received PAC contributions of $4,000 or more during that period, he said.

Under current provisions of the Senate bill, moreover, PACs could form subsidiary or affiliated PACs -- suggesting a kind of loophole for continued high-level PAC activity. The generally tighter House bill would prohibit formation of affiliated PACS -- suggesting just one of many differences between the bills that could provoke controversy or deadlock as the bills are considered in the final days of the session.

The Senate president has not relented, however.

He observes that one senator faced an opponent who spent $250,000 of his own money in last year's election. The constitutionally protected ability of individuals to spend as much as they like of their own money is one of the factors that drives candidates to embrace the handouts of eager PAC managers.

"Compared to the outrageous and egregious situation we have now, an $8,000 PAC contribution limit is not out of line," Mr. Miller said.

Currently in Maryland, PACs are not limited in their spending.

"What we're doing is taking a first step," he said, "but it's a giant step because it's a curb where there are no curbs."

Mr. Andrews of Common Cause agrees, and he hails the other major bill proposed by the House speaker and the Senate president. That bill proposes to ban fund raising by lobbyists -- a practice that has evolved to such a state of high pressure from legislators that some lobbyists are proposing its abolition.

Mr. Andrews says the lobbyist restrictions are major advances for Maryland, although he thinks that the Assembly should go further and ban all such wining and dining, as Wisconsin has done.

"As Mr. Miller pointed out," he said, "senators and delegates can use their publicly provided expense accounts to avoid conflicts."

That portion of the lobbyist restriction bill apparently is in some difficulty. Legislators are afraid, for example, that they might accidentally apply for meal expense reimbursement for nights when they were entertained by a lobbyist who reported that fact as required by the House bill.

For a legislature intent on combating what Mr. Mitchell has called the perception of a problem, the appearance of a double dip, accidental or deliberate, strikes some senators as unwise.

The bill passed by the House is closer to Mr. Miller's stated objectives. It would make it easier for the public to see which lobbyists and corporations entertained legislators. Moreover, if a lobbyist was prorating what he spent on a legislator to evade the $75 limit on gifts or entertaining, the Miller-Mitchell bill would stop that practice.

But as passed by the Senate committee, the reporting requirements urged by Mr. Miller have been largely removed.

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