Lawmakers wait 'til end to act on election reform

April 09, 1991|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Annapolis Bureau of The Sun

ANNAPOLIS -- The bills they hated to love were among the bills they left until last.

These were the election reform bills, also known as the "perception bills" -- bills designed to combat the "perception" that money drives policy, protects business and dulls the democratic senses of representative and voter alike.

In part because these bills had at least the potential to reduce a legislator's fund-raising clout, final action was delayed until the 90th day of the Assembly's 90-day meeting.

Holding up a magazine with an article about corruption in state capitals, Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Prince George's, said Maryland had to avoid the shame -- and indictments -- descending on assemblies from New York to Arizona.

By the close of business yesterday, the Assembly had imposed a first-ever in Maryland limit on PACs -- no more than $6,000 to a single candidate in any four-year election cycle. It had ruled that PAC names must accurately reflect what the PAC does: a furriers' PAC, for example, could not call itself Friends of Wildlife.

And lobbyists -- often the agents of big business in the fund-raising enterprise -- were ordered out of the arena. Lobbyists will not be allowed to manage PACs or serve as finance directors. They will still be free to advise -- but their role will be less overt. Many lobbyists wanted this bill too, asserting that legislators forced them to sell a table or two of $50 to $250 tickets.

"These bills send a strong message to the public that the General Assembly runs things in Annapolis -- not the PACs or the business interests," said Phil Andrews, director of Maryland Common Cause, a proponent of these changes for at least five years.

Maryland was acting to protect itself for two reasons, Mr. Andrews said: Senate President Miller and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, who co-sponsored the bills.

Although reform of the current campaign finance bills had strong support, some Assembly members appealed privately to House leaders for less stringent PAC limits and less restrictive provisions for lobbyist fund raising. Debate in the House was far more critical than the final vote tally suggested.

Several members of the Senate who told Common Cause they would support PAC limits of no more than $4,000 during last year's campaign changed their minds and voted in favor of an $8,000 limit.

A number of senators opposed that provision, including Sen. Laurence Levitan, D-Montgomery, who asserted, "I see no abuse at all. No one is violating the spirit of the law."

A media-generated assumption that money corrupts government had created an atmosphere in which "five pounds of loose horse manure, wrapped in a red ribbon and labeled reform could command a 24-vote majority in the Senate," snorted Sen. John A. Cade, R-Anne Arundel.

But only one senator -- Mr. Cade -- voted against the PAC bill. In the House, the measure passed 133-1, with Delegate Charles W. Kolodziewski, D-Anne Arundel, in opposition. Almost no one wanted to indicate that he or she thought perception was different from reality.

The bill's prospects were enhanced also by the belief that while PAC giving might be limited on the surface, formation of so-called baby PACs which might defeat the intent of the measure is still possible.

"There are many creative ways to give money under this bill," said Senator Levitan. The reform exercise, said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, was futile -- "like picking up water."

But Sen. Julian L. Lapides, D-Baltimore, said an attempt was necessary to separate legislators and lobbyists who are drawn together in a political fund-raising process that demands "heavy" contributions and features "shakedowns" by legislators hungry for campaign money.

No one should doubt that a quid pro quo is involved in these exchanges, he said.

"What is your price, senator?" demanded Senator Cade at that point in the debate.

"I think we all have different prices," Mr. Lapides said.

"What is heavy?" Mr. Cade resumed.

"Anything over $1,000," said Mr. Lapides, picking a number. After a few somewhat personal gibes -- gaveled to an end by Mr. Miller -- the debate moved on.

Mr. Miller and other supporters of the bill agreed that the PAC limit will have little immediate effect -- since few legislators have gotten PAC contributions exceeding $6,000 and since the bill does not set an overall limit on PAC contributions that may be accepted.

Sen. Clarence W. Blount, D-Baltimore, likened the legislation to buying shoes for a growing child. "You want them a little flexible so they last for more than one month."

The House was solidly in favor of a $4,000 limit on PACs. But the Senate wanted a higher ceiling, in part, because senators are usually the lead politician on slates and want more money to finance their teams.

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