Public money to help candidates for governor

THE POLITICAL GAME

May 05, 1993|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,Staff Writer

Marylanders get a chance next year to see if they can improve the political game by paying for it.

Barring another delay, about $2.7 million will be available to help finance races for governor in the primary and general election.

Forces for good government hope public financing will shift power away from $1,000-givers by providing public dollars to candidates if they accept spending limits.

"The current system is corrupting because it encourages even well-intentioned people to go where the money is," says Phil Andrews, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland.

As with the federal law, a Maryland law allowed taxpayers to contribute $2 to public financing when they filled out their state tax returns. The law provides for a one-time test.

When it was passed in 1974, Marylanders were at a low ebb of confidence in their officials. A former governor, Spiro T. Agnew, had been forced to resign in 1973 as vice president amid charges of kick backs.

The measure, sponsored by former Del. David Scull, a Montgomery County lawyer, was designed to restore integrity -- and voter confidence. But the law was handled in a way that might well have increased cynicism instead.

Incumbents usually aren't anxious to see challengers getting financial help, and office holders moved to frustrate the law's intent.

The first shenanigan actually occurred before the law was passed. Legislators amended the bill so all 188 Assembly races were included, too.

"They knew there wouldn't be enough money," says Mr. Andrews.

The designated test year was to have been 1978. But the General Assembly has amended the law to postpone the test in every statewide election since then.

Another delay seems unlikely. By the time the Assembly meets next year, the program will already be operating with candidates drawing money. Half the $2.7 million is to be used during the primary and is available to those who agree to the overall spending limit.

The limit of about $960,000 is calculated by multiplying the number of Marylanders, approximately 4.8 million, by 20 cents.

The candidate must also raise at least 15 percent of the maximum. Every $2 raised is matched by $1 from the fund.

Candidates in the general election divide what is left.

Some candidates will have a decision to make. Those with substantial fund-raising ability may ask themselves: If I bypass the public money -- and raise a lot more -- have I aligned myself with the fat cats? Is that something I want to do in the era of anti-incumbent fervor? Could money become a liability?

For other candidates, there will be one only question: Do I have a prayer of raising $1 million on my own?

Bill Shepard, the 1990 Republican candidate who had far less than a million then, says, "At last, a level playing field. . . . Republicans no longer have to think that some rich candidate is needed."

True for Democrats, too.

Mr. Scull's law will expire after its 1994 test -- unless legislators and voters like the experiment.

Mr. Andrews thinks they should be willing to shell out a few dollars.

"People pay a lot more for bad government," he says.

He cites the savings and loan scandal as evidence of what happens when swashbuckling campaign contributors have their way.

Saluting him real good

Next year's race for comptroller will be paid for the old fashioned way.

So the inimitable Louis L. Goldstein, comptroller of the treasury in Maryland since before the flood, is off and running as always like the Eveready bunny.

A fund-raiser is scheduled for tonight at Martin's West.

No one expects the doughty Louie to have a bit of trouble winning a 10th, four-year term. But he's out there socking the dollars away anyway.

"God bless you all real good," is Mr. Goldstein's famous salutation.

To which the assembled throng may respond tonight, "Happy Birthday!" They'll be celebrating his 80th. Aides say he's now served in public office longer than anyone else in the United States.

Such a distinction is important, of course, but it does not diminish the need for campaign cash.

Tickets are $150 each.

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