Modernizing sought for campaign data Financial records scattered, untimely and not computerized

July 25, 1996|By Thomas W. Waldron | Thomas W. Waldron,SUN STAFF

If you want to find out whether XYZ Industries gave money to a political candidate, you have to go to the state elections office in Annapolis and plow through several inches of reports.

Want to determine how much state business XYZ has received? Then go to the secretary of state's office a few blocks away and look through the files there.

And if you want to know what sort of gifts XYZ gave elected officials, then go to Towson and peruse the files of the State Ethics Commission.

None of the information scattered across two counties is computerized, much of it is untimely, and almost none of it is scrutinized by state officials.

Many critics say that is no accident.

They say the General Assembly, controlled by Democrats, has long resisted attempts to modernize its creaky system of public disclosure, largely to keep a veil over the financial aspect of politics.

"The more complicated the Democrats made it to see what you raised and where it came from, the better they liked it," said Joyce Lyons Terhes, chairwoman of the state Republican Party.

Now, stung by reports of campaign law violations and aggressive, behind-the-scenes fund raising, some ranking Democrats are saying it is time to bring Maryland's financing records into the computer age.

This week, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. pushed strongly for the computerization and centralization of the state records now kept in three locations.

The public has the right to easy access to the information, he said, and legislators should want to dispel skepticism about their fund-raising practices. "We must do all we can to make the campaign-financing process as open as possible," he said.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. have endorsed computerizing state records, which puts the three most powerful politicians in Annapolis on the same side of the issue.

In a report by a campaign-monitoring group, Maryland was rated 42nd among the 50 states for its efforts to make campaign-financing data available to the public.

The Federal Election Commission has maintained computerized records on campaign contributions for years. And at least 21 states, not including Maryland, have some kind of database for fund-raising reports, according to a recent study by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit group in Washington that monitors campaign-finance issues.

"Maryland was so bad we kind of used them as an example" in the study, said Lisa Rosenberg, a research director at the center.

Without computerization, state officials are hard-pressed to uncover campaign-finance violations. And the public and news media may find it difficult to figure out how and from whom a candidate is raising money.

Maryland requires candidates to file fund-raising reports annually more often during an election year -- but only on paper.

Common Cause/Maryland, an independent watchdog group, has used painstaking research to document several cases in which contributors apparently exceeded the campaign donation limits in state law.

Nonetheless, the legislature has rejected bills in each of the last three years to set up some kind of computerization that would make it easier to identify such violations.

This year, a House committee voted 13-8 against a watered-down bill that would have allowed candidates for the first time to file campaign finance reports on computer disk. Legislative opponents said they were concerned about creating more work for their unpaid campaign treasurers, who are burdened with other paperwork.

The failed proposal would have required the state to spend at least $46,000 to handle computerized filings for some candidates, according to an election office estimate.

Officials said the proposal pushed by Taylor would be considerably more expensive but that it was too early to provide a cost estimate.

The elections office would need to expand its staff, buy computers and pay for additional software, said Rebecca M. Wicklund, head of the office that oversees campaign-finance reports. In addition, the office, now shoehorned into part of an old armory, probably would need more space.

The elections office is considering two ways of computerizing the reports: requiring candidates to file them on a computer disk or having state workers enter the data after it is filed on paper by the candidates.

Although the state has been slow to move to computers, candidates increasingly are making the leap anyway. This year, 105 candidates and 36 political action committees are using computers to generate their reports, Wicklund said.

That is a small fraction of the more than 4,000 reports the office receives in a gubernatorial election year.

Some legislators have said they fear that a move to computers would prove too daunting for some candidates who raise little money and don't have the wherewithal to put their information on computer.

Proponents of computerization say such concerns are little more than smoke screens.

"Most state legislators will say that disclosure is really key to having democratic elections," said Rosenberg of the Center for Responsive Politics. "But when it comes right down to it, they don't want to be subjecting their own campaign finances to more scrutiny from the public or from opposing parties."

Pub Date: 7/25/96

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