Tougher law on campaign finance urged House speaker asks for more frequent reporting of donations

Public is 'skeptical'

Taylor also proposes files be computerized to easily track gifts

July 24, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

Concerned about the public's mistrust of political fund raising, House of Delegates Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. yesterday called for major improvements to Maryland's campaign finance law.

Taylor told a House subcommittee that he supports more frequent reporting of campaign fund-raising activity and computerizing state files to make it easier for the public to track politicians' money.

"The public is increasingly skeptical about the influence that money plays in the life of each politician," the Allegany County Democrat said. "Far too many people still perceive the process as a behind-the-scenes, insider's game where money changes hands out of the public's view."

Over the years, the General Assembly has considered and rejected many of the ideas pushed yesterday by Taylor. But support from one of the legislature's leaders significantly improves chances for reform.

"This has made me extremely optimistic," said Risselle R. Fleisher, a member of the board of Common Cause/Maryland, a group that has pushed hard for campaign finance reform.

Taylor said he hopes the subcommittee can develop legislation before January, when the legislature will convene for its annual 90-day session.

The call for changes to Maryland's campaign financing laws was echoed by the state Republican Party, the executive director of the State Ethics Commission, and the Sierra Club, which wants a better accounting of money spent by companies opposed to stiffer environmental laws.

Yesterday's hearing came only a few days after a prominent political contributor -- racetrack owner Joseph A. De Francis -- was placed on probation for violating state limits on campaign gifts by funnelling $12,000 to the 1994 campaign of Gov. Parris N. Glendening through some of De Francis' out-of-state relatives.

The De Francis case was not mentioned yesterday as proponents of reform focused more on improving the system of public disclosure of campaign gifts.

Taylor and others called for computerizing campaign-finance records, which are now filed on paper forms and stored in file cabinets in a cramped former armory in Annapolis. Putting the records on a computer database would make it easier for the press and the public to analyze where a politician's campaign funds come from, they said.

Taylor said candidates could pay a user fee to absorb some of the cost of modernizing the elections office.

Glendening supports the computerization of campaign finance records, said spokeswoman Judi Scioli.

Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has said in the past he that supports efforts to computerize campaign records.

Some legislators said they worry that many candidates won't have the money or know-how to keep their financing records on a computer.

"You've got to look out for the little guy," said Del. John S. Arnick, a Baltimore County Democrat and chairman of the five-member subcommittee studying the issue.

Taylor suggested that major contributors be required to disclose their occupation and employer. And he recommended that candidates disclose their fund raising on a quarterly basis. Candidates now file reports annually, except for election years, when reports are filed more frequently.

Taylor also said a ban on lobbyists raising funds for legislative candidates should be extended to cover candidates for statewide office.

State Prosecutor Stephen Montanarelli, who brought the case against De Francis, urged the panel to extend the statute of limitations for campaign-finance violations from two to four years, to better mesh with the four-year campaign cycle.

Pub Date: 7/24/96

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