Public funding in governor race clears legislature

April 08, 1995|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,Sun Staff Writer

Candidates for governor in 1998 and thereafter would have the option of running their campaigns with money contributed by taxpayers under legislation unanimously approved by the General Assembly yesterday.

Last year, Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey came within fewer than 6,000 votes of victory in a heavily Democratic state thanks to a campaign supported by more than $1 million in public funds. It was Maryland's first experience with public financing.

The state Senate and House of Delegates both voted unanimously yesterday to continue and expand that system.

The legislation is intended to diminish the influence of special interest groups, lobbyists and other large contributors. Maryland one of only a dozen states that has publicly financed gubernatorial campaigns.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening is expected to sign the legislation into law, although he has made it clear he does not plan to accept the money himself. Last fall, his campaign spent more than $5 million, far more than would have been permitted by public financing.

Candidates who participate would be financed from a fund supported by taxpayer contributions of up to $500. The contributions would be collected through a checkoff on state income tax returns.

Under a population-based formula, participating candidates would have a spending ceiling of about $1.5 million for the primary and again for the general election, an increase from the $1 million limits in current law.

To qualify, candidates would need to raise about $150,000 from private citizens in contributions of $250 or less.

For every dollar raised privately, candidates would qualify for up to a dollar in matching funds from the state, depending on how much money is available. Last year, it took $2 in private contributions to qualify for the $1 match.

The legislation also would allow political parties to spend money on behalf of their nominees and it would not be counted against the candidate's spending ceiling. That became an issue last year when the GOP stepped forward to help Mrs. Sauerbrey.

"This ensures that publicly funded candidates don't get penalized by winning a primary," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

The fund was set up with contributions from taxpayers in the mid-1970s, but the legislature didn't make it available to candidates until last year.

Mrs. Sauerbrey and two Democrats, Mary Boergers and American Joe Miedusiewski, chose to participate.

About $1.6 million is left in the fund. The 1995 income tax form would offer taxpayers their first opportunity to contribute under the new system.

Mrs. Sauerbrey said yesterday she was pleased with the new legislation, but still questioned how fair the system would be when a candidate who doesn't accept public funds has no spending limit.

She said she also is concerned whether there would be enough money in the fund in three years to pay for multiple candidates.

"It's a mixed blessing," the former House minority leader said. "As long as you can be outspent multifold, it's still going to be a tough row to hoe."

The legislature also gave final approval yesterday to a bill that would create a task force to review the state's election laws. The proposal came in response to concerns over voting irregularities raised by Mrs. Sauerbrey after last November's election.

Although a judge rejected Mrs. Sauerbrey's claims, her lawsuit highlighted problems with the system, including Baltimore City's failure to purge ineligible voters from the rolls and maintain proper security over voting machines.

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