Dewy-Eyed Dembrow

December 15, 1993|By BRUCE L. BORTZ

Headed toward Annapolis are three bills designed to make the campaign-finance reports of Maryland office seekers timely, comprehensive, understandable and accessible. This is legislation whose chief beneficiary is the public. And, if the stars align properly, some or all of the batch could actually win enactment.

Campaign-finance reports in Maryland are supposed to spell out who gives the candidates how much money. But they don't. Most of the larger ''individual'' contributions are from top company executives the candidates usually know. The media and the public, unable to see through these business contributions-in-disguise, can't tell to which interests the candidate is beholden.

During the 1993 session, Del. Gilbert Genn, D-Montgomery County, almost got out of committee a bill to require candidates receiving large ''individual'' contributions ($250 and up) to specify the contributor's occupation and employer. House Judiciary Committee chairman Joseph Vallario, D-Prince George's, opposed the proposal, but he's now checking to see what's done elsewhere. When he learns that a dozen states require occupation/employer disclosure, he may have a change of heart. Meantime, Sen. Michael Collins, D-Baltimore County, who chairs the ethics and election-law subcommittee of the Senate Economic and Environmental Matters Committee, has indicated that such disclosure by individual contributors is probably needed.

Another area for fix-up in 1994 is an inadvertent distinction in the state's campaign-finance laws. Candidates in Maryland can set up non-continuing committees, in effect saying they're seeking a single office, and promising to discontinue fund-raising and close down their accounts once their campaign is over. But they are not required to file their first disclosure statements until one month before the state primary election, thus keeping their fund-raising totals and contributors from view for much of the standard two-year campaign.

Those who operate under continuing campaigns, however, are required to file reports a full year before the general election, as well as in August of election year. Del. Ken Montague, D-Baltimore, will sponsor a bill this session to make all committees report on both dates, and he may succeed. Most legislators operate continuing committees, and won't be affected by the change, other than favorably.

Those who have ever pored over candidates' campaign reports know they leave a lot to be desired. Take a look at some of the hand written filings and see if you can make out names or numbers. To set the system straight, Del. Dana Dembrow, D- Montgomery, will push in 1994 for a measure that ultimately would require candidates to file their campaign-finance statements on computer disk, using simple, standard software furnished at cost by the state.

The computer program would automatically determine, in the aggregate, how much money contributors have donated to their campaigns and issue warnings not to accept contributions going over individual limits -- two aspects of the current law that befuddle most candidates. Forced to file on disc, candidates would also save enormous amounts of time in entering contribution data, and be better prepared for future fund-raising.

Meantime, the state could do away with much of the space now used to store paper records, save a considerable amount of money elsewhere, and be far better able to determine which contributors break the law by exceeding state giving limits.

Those of us covering state politics could retrieve contribution data through a modem, then use our computers to sort, group and compute it. Revealed, we expect, would be contribution patterns never before observable. For example, what percentage of the candidate's money comes from PACs, individuals or businesses? Is this the candidate of the doctors, lawyers or teachers? And how involved is a certain contributor in ALL Maryland campaigns?

Mr. Dembrow knows there will be great resistance to his idea here, especially among older legislators from the state's more rural parts. ''We're having trouble finding volunteer treasurers already,'' they will squawk. ''Now you're asking us to recruit treasurers who are also computer-literate!''

The protests should be ignored. Mr. Dembrow's bill, as currently drafted, wouldn't go into effect until 1996. It may well exempt the tiniest state campaigns -- the ones for school board or state central committee that bring in less than $5,000, and in which there is little public interest. The bill will require the state to provide computer-less campaigns with access to state machines.

Still, the odds run against Mr. Dembrow. Maryland legislators tend to belittle and dismiss bills like his. ''Dewy-eyed, good government, Montgomery County reforms,'' they'll say among themselves. Senator Collins, com- menting on a campaign-finance reform bill last year, noted that the only groups interested were the press and the watchdog group Common Cause.

Mr. Collins and company do not state one inescapable conclusion: In campaign-finance matters, every legislator is caught up in an obvious conflict of interest. Legislators have as direct an interest in the outcome of such matters as if they set their own salaries and pensions -- which, for that reason, they no longer do. An independent state commission recommends pay and pension levels, which become law unless vetoed by the legislature.

Voter anger and the federal push for campaign reform may rescue Mr. Dembrow's new-fangled idea. For state legislators, appearing to be open, accountable and technologically au courant may prove to be very good politics in the coming election year.

Bruce L. Bortz edits The Maryland Report and The Maryland Procurement Report newsletters. He comments for The Sun on Maryland politics.

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