Campaign finance bill survives test Advocates defeat attempt to shelve it for this year

'Still on the resuscitator'

Measure would extend statute of limitations to prosecute offenders

March 07, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A bill that would put new teeth into Maryland's campaign finance laws survived a near-death experience in a House of Delegates committee yesterday as advocates turned aside an effort to shelve it for this year.

But the legislation still faces an uncertain future at the hands of a skeptical subcommittee chairman.

The bill, sponsored by Del. Maggie L. McIntosh, would make it easier to prosecute people who make illegal campaign donations by extending the statute of limitations for such violations.

Del. John S. Arnick, chairman of a House Commerce and Government Affairs subcommittee, has said he opposes extending the current two-year statute of limitations for criminal violations of the state's campaign law.

"I don't like playing with the statute of limitations just to play with the statute of limitations," the Baltimore County Democrat said.

Leaders of the full Commerce and Government Affairs Committee seemed yesterday to be on the verge of sending the legislation to summer study -- a classic method of killing a bill without having to vote it down -- before the closely divided panel agreed to refer it back to Arnick's subcommittee to consider amendments.

"My bill is still on the resuscitator," said McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat.

The legislation to strengthen enforcement of the election law is one of the top objectives of campaign finance reform advocates during the current session.

The legislation has won strong backing from a coalition of Republicans and liberal Democrats in the wake of recent scandals in which election law violators have escaped any penalty because their infractions were discovered a few months too late.

"These are the teeth to the package," said Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat.

Reform advocates have had a good session in the House so far as delegates overwhelmingly approved a package of campaign finance measures sponsored by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr.

Among other things, those measures would computerize state election records to allow the public greater access to them and make it easier to identify violators.

The chilly reception Arnick and his allies have given the McIntosh bill shows the difficulty of passing such legislation when it does not have a presiding officer's name attached to it.

No public position by Taylor

Taylor, an Allegany County Democrat, has taken no public position on the enforcement bill.

The McIntosh bill would extend the statute of limitations to four years.

A companion Senate measure sponsored by Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery County Democrat, would set it at three years.

Both bills would increase penalties for willful criminal violations and create civil penalties for violations that cannot be shown to have been intentional.

Criminal charges now are the only option open to prosecutors for campaign finance violations.

They are punishable by a rarely imposed one-year jail term and a $1,000 fine.

The McIntosh bill would raise the fines for criminal violations to $25,000 or 300 percent of the amount of the illegal gift, whichever is greater.

Arnick had offered several amendments in the subcommittee that would have kept the criminal statute of limitations at two years and have scaled back the civil limit to three years.

His changes also would have set the maximum fine in the bill at only $2,000.

Arnick dislikes bill's fines

Arnick said the fines in the bill treated violators "about like murderers."

Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, a public-interest watchdog group, said the fines Arnick jTC suggested were too low.

"Without a significant increase in the fines, they will have gutted the bill," she said.

Povich said her group also will work to increase the criminal statute of limitations to at least the three years in the Senate bill.

Pub Date: 3/07/97

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