House passes reform bills Taylor supported tightening of rules on campaign finance

Computerized records would replace paper

February 22, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

With barely a whimper to betray many legislators' misgivings, the House of Delegates passed and sent to the Senate yesterday an ambitious package of campaign finance reform bills intended to polish the reputation of Maryland's elected officials.

The series of unanimous and near-unanimous votes was a significant victory for House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who threw the weight of his office behind the package after several campaign finance scandals last year.

Among the bills passed yesterday is one that would require the state to maintain its campaign finance records in computerized form rather than the current blizzard of paper. Other bills would increase the amount of information candidates must disclose and would put greater distance between officeholders and lobbyists.

"It's the second major victory of the session as far as I'm concerned," said Taylor, who also celebrated this week the passage of a long-sought brownfields bill to restore contaminated industrial sites. "We have fashioned a very far-reaching package that will bring campaign finances into the 21st century."

Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a public-interest watchdog group, said the bills are the most significant campaign finance reforms to be passed by the House in six years.

"We're at this juncture because of the speaker's leadership. The House has now passed the baton to the Senate. We're optimistic the Senate will be able to pass those bills," Povich said.

All but one of the seven reform bills Taylor sponsored were passed yesterday, four of them unanimously.

The remaining bill would ban campaign fund raising by all state officeholders during the General Assembly session. It has been delayed by concerns that a provision extending the ban to nonincumbent candidates might be unconstitutional, but the bill is still considered likely to pass.

The lack of opposition and minimal debate masked the difficulty of pushing strong campaign finance bills through the reform-wary House.

Povich noted that computerization of campaign records, regarded as the most important measure approved yesterday, had never emerged from committee in previous sessions.

Taylor took lead

Taylor, not known in the past as a champion of campaign finance reform, jumped to the front of the parade last year after embarrassing revelations about Gov. Parris N. Glendening's fund-raising operation.

The reform movement gained additional impetus from reports of law-breaking by certain campaign contributors to evade Maryland's limits on political donations.

Taylor said he expects the package to be approved by the Senate, where Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. has proposed similar legislation.

Glendening said yesterday that he hasn't seen the details of the legislation but that he approves of the concepts. "On the face of it, it seems like a very good package," he said.

The bills passed yesterday would enact several reforms that campaign finance advocates have been seeking for many years.

Computerized reports

One would require the state election board to begin computerizing campaign finance reports, beginning with statewide races in 1998 and extending to legislative and local races in the future. Because that change would require most candidates to submit reports in an electronic format, the provision was difficult to swallow for many technophobic legislators.

The other bills would:

Require candidates to report the occupations and employers of contributors who gave more than $500.

Require more timely finance reports from campaigns during periods when they were raising a significant amount of money.

Forbid registered lobbyists from raising money for candidates for statewide office. They are already prohibited from doing so for legislative candidates.

Expand campaign finance reporting requirements in judicial races.

Povich said several important campaign finance bills that weren't part of Taylor's package need to be passed to more fully alleviate public concerns.

One, she said, would ensure adequate funding for the state program offering public financing of campaigns. Another would bolster enforcement of campaign finance laws by increasing civil penalties and doubling a two-year statute of limitations that has let many violators escape punishment.

"The enforcement package is clearly needed," Povich said. "It would greatly improve public confidence in the campaign finance system by ending the culture of lawlessness."

The House also voted 95-38 yesterday for a bill that would ease reporting requirements for lobbyists when they entertain county or regional delegations of state legislators.

Del. Joseph M. Getty, a Carroll County Republican, said the bill "creates a significant loophole" in a stringent disclosure law passed last year.

Povich said it was an unfortunate change but relatively unimportant.

The bills

These are the campaign finance bills passed by the House of Delegates yesterday and sent to the Senate for consideration:

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