Assembly to tackle limits on campaign financing Excess: Both major parties' actions have led to heightened public concern about election contributions and spending.

The Political Game

December 10, 1996|By C. Fraser Smith | C. Fraser Smith,SUN STAFF

THE COMING legislative season offers Maryland its best shot since the post-Watergate years at reducing the influence of money on elections.

Legislators can hardly wonder what the public wants: In the November election, voters in California, Colorado and Maine approved reform initiatives designed to limit spending and contributions.

Excesses of spending and contributing occurred in both major parties during the election.

In Maryland, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. will propose a package of reforms -- including, finally, computerization of records to permit real public scrutiny. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has, in his way, been a champion of limiting the influence of money on elections.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening, only now emerging from a dip in the hot water of fund-raising controversy, said he finds nothing objectionable in the Taylor proposals.

On the Republican side, the 1994 gubernatorial candidate, Ellen R. Sauerbrey, almost won in 1994 using Maryland's public financing fund -- raising no money from private sources during the general election and very nearly upsetting the Democrat, Glendening.

Each of these political figures will approach the issue of reform with reservation and fear, however muted. They don't call money the mother's milk of politics for nothing.

Sauerbrey, for example, knows how it feels to be blitzed by television advertising and feel helpless to repond.

Thus, efforts to rewrite the fund-raising laws will become the work of 188 "experts" -- each of the 47 senators and 141 delegates.

A broad supporting cast will be watching, lobbyists and public interest group representatives who know that contributions to campaigns create lasting friendships that can be of value to clients. But that is always so.

What is new is heightened public concern.

Taylor and Miller are likely to provide the sort of leadership that matters in the General Assembly.

The still-developing political dynamics of the 1998 race for governor could lead all contenders to consider using the public money -- to avoid the perils of fund raising.

Glendening's difficulties are Exhibit A.

Earlier this year, the governor took a ride to New York on a corporate plane to attend a fund-raiser in the Manhattan home of a company boss seeking a big contract in Maryland.

Even earlier, a contributor was caught funneling contributions through family members, his contribution maximum having been reached.

These episodes may well have lowered the ardor of Glendening supporters, reducing his ability to raise money.

If Glendening has lost some of his potency, the public purse of about $3 million for the primary and general election combined will seem larger.

The questions include this one: Is fund raising a sufficiently important concern of voters that they would be drawn to contenders, Democrat or Republican, who renounced private interest funds and chose the limited public money?

A politician would have to live without the sense of security they hope money will bring, says Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause, Maryland.

If fund raising has just a hint of the unsavory though, the public financing route looks more attractive. None of this can happen, of course, unless the amount of money in the fund is increased.

It might take a gambler's nerve, but it would show the sort of leadership voters may be seeking now.

Coherent, well-thought-out and not the moon

The governor had reporters in last week for a chat about his recent tax cut and spending proposals.

While opponents say he's promising the moon, Glendening says it's all pretty reasonable and affordable -- and all designed to help Maryland families.

The scholarship program, the tax cut, the pay raise for state police and the health care for pregnant mothers and their children are all doable, he insists.

To some extent, he says, opposition to his proposals is being driven by forces that would like to see slot machines at racetracks or casinos in Maryland.

He reiterated his stand against gambling, including casino nights in Prince George's County, where he was once the county executive -- where charitable gambling bought fire engines and the like, relieving the county of those expenses.

Maryland, he says, does not need gambling to meet its needs.

Pub Date: 12/10/96

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