Publicly financed elections weighed Backers in Md. House say bill would limit costs, special interests

February 22, 1996|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN STAFF

In the age of big money politics, a group of Maryland delegates is backing a bill in Annapolis to control the rising cost of legislative campaigns and check the influence of special interests.

The measure, backed by House Majority Leader John Adams Hurson, would establish one of the few systems in the country for publicly financing legislative races.

Specifically, it would provide matching funds to candidates who limit their campaign spending and contributions from political action committees.

At a hearing yesterday, supporters -- including the citizen watchdog group Common Cause/Maryland and a representative of the League of Women Voters -- argued that the bill would help clean up elections and make it easier for people of modest means to run for office.

But though no one testified against the proposal at the hearing before the Commerce and Government Matters Committee, Chairman Gerald J. Curran said afterward that he doubted his panel would approve it.

"This kind of thing takes a lot of time and a lot of study," the Baltimore Democrat said.

Apprised of the chairman's comments, one of the bill's supporters noted that incumbents who have won election under the current system often oppose campaign finance reform.

"They, by and large, don't see any reason to change it," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause. "The fact that this proposal would likely increase competitiveness in elections engenders a natural opposition."

Mr. Hurson, a Montgomery County Democrat, remained optimistic about the proposal's chances.

"People are tired about the amount of money they have to raise and spend to get elected," he said. "I think Gerry has been down here a long time and may not see the winds of change coming."

From the presidential level down, the cost of political campaigning has been a major issue for years. Challengers often complain that they are shut out of elections because they can't compete with incumbents who raise large sums through special interest groups.

Maryland already offers public financing for gubernatorial candidates. Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey used the public funds in her 1994 campaign, nearly beating the heavily financed Democratic candidate and eventual governor, Parris N. Glendening.

The proposal under consideration in the House would essentially extend that system to legislative contests. It would set a voluntary spending limit for House candidates at $75,000 and Senate candidates at $150,000. Those agreeing to the ceilings would be prohibited from raising more than 20 percent of the limit from political action committees.

In exchange, candidates would receive $1 in public funds for each dollar they raised in small contributions, defined as $100 or less, from within their districts.

If the General Assembly approves the bill, Maryland would become only the fourth state -- behind Minnesota, Wisconsin and Nebraska -- to provide public funds for legislative races.

The program would be funded by reinstituting a tax on direct-mail advertising published in Maryland but distributed out of state, including catalogs. The tax would generate an estimated $2.9 million a year. After four years, Ms. Povich said, there would be enough money to fund a statewide election with 300 candidates participating.

However, Mr. Curran said the tax is an issue that another committee charged with such matters might have to look at. "It would take a special effort to pull the bill together," said Mr. Curran, who added that public funding for legislative races is a "concept that I favor."

The cost of such races is rising rapidly in Maryland. Since 1986, the average amount spent on a House race has risen from $30,000 to $46,000, according to Common Cause. During the same period, the average cost of a Senate race went from $62,000 to $107,000.

Some members of the committee noted yesterday that the limits were well below the amount that many legislators spend. Ms. Povich countered that they were designed to head off rising costs.

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