Common Cause seeks change in campaign financing

May 20, 1994|By John W. Frece | John W. Frece,Sun Staff Writer Sun staff writer Frank Langfitt contributed to this article.

Common Cause/Maryland, the citizen watchdog group, yesterday called for an overhaul of Maryland campaign finance laws, saying businesses, unions and other special interests are exerting an undue influence on elections.

Based on a computer analysis of contributions to six gubernatorial candidates between November 1990 and November 1993, Common Cause concluded that nearly half the money -- 46 percent -- came from businesses, political action committees, unions and lobbyists.

The group said loopholes in current laws permit businesses to circumvent contribution limits, and that leisurely reporting deadlines make it difficult for the public to know in a timely fashion who gave how much to whom.

"Special interests give campaign contributions with an eye toward future state business, positive regulatory action, or future legislative action," said Common Cause executive director Deborah Povich. "When special interests become the predominant source for campaign funds, candidates' independence is called into question."

To shift the process more toward individual contributors, Common Cause recommended a ban on all business and union contributions.

It also recommended that large donors be required to identify their employer and occupation, and that candidates be required to file campaign finance reports on a quarterly basis in an election year.

Federal candidates and office seekers in 20 states must provide information on their occupation and employer. But Maryland legislators have twice rejected similar rules here, requiring only the contributor's name and address.

Noting that the overall cost of campaigns is soaring -- from the $2.6 million Gov. William Donald Schaefer spent in 1990 to a campaign goal of $4 million for some candidates this year -- Common Cause recommended limits on overall expenditures and legislation setting up some form of public campaign financing.

The proposals drew mixed reviews from candidates who could be reached yesterday.

None embraced a complete ban on business and union contributions. Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey of Baltimore County said she could consider such an approach, but only if important "in-kind" contributions by unions, such as running telephone banks for candidates or getting out the vote on election day, were also banned.

She and three of her Democratic rivals, Lt. Gov. Melvin A. Steinberg, state Sen. Mary H. Boergers and Prince George's County Executive Parris N. Glendening, said they had no problem with requiring large contributors to be identified by occupation and employer.

State Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, a Baltimore Democrat, said he would oppose disclosure of occupations and employers because that could lead to wrong conclusions. He said many of his donors work at General Motors' Broening Highway plant, but it would be wrong to consider their contributions as support from GM itself.

By cross-checking contributors and addresses, Common Cause concluded that some businesses and individuals have circumvented contribution limits of $4,000 per candidate in an election cycle.

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