Campaign reform bill is OK'd State legislators seek better disclosure, curbs on lobbyists

'Work against cynicism'

Senate, House reach compromise

governor indicates his support

April 02, 1997|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

The General Assembly gave final approval yesterday to broad campaign finance reform legislation that will greatly expand public access to information about how political money is raised and spent in Maryland.

After working out their final compromises behind the scenes, the Senate and the House of Delegates passed the proposal by overwhelming margins and sent it to Gov. Parris N. Glendening for his expected signature.

The legislation includes a requirement for computerization of campaign contribution records -- a move viewed as essential to making candidates' financial disclosure statements more accessible to the public.

It also will toughen the enforcement provisions of current election laws and put new restrictions on fund raising by lobbyists.

House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., who adopted the issue as his own this year, congratulated the chamber for passing what he called "the most comprehensive campaign finance reform package in the last 20 years."

"My hope is that it will build more confidence in government and work against cynicism," the Cumberland Democrat said in an interview.

The vote was 39-2 in the Senate and 132-3 in the House.

Reform advocates did not get everything on their wish list, but they came away pleased.

"I think we've got more than half a loaf. This is a solid 'B,' " said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland.

While Glendening did not explicitly state that he would sign the legislation, he indicated his support. "As far as I can tell, it seems like a very good bill. It does cover the fundamentals we all thought should be in there," the governor said.

Scandals provided impetus

Much of the impetus for reform came from a series of fund-raising scandals that became public in the past year, several of them involving Glendening's campaign organization. They included the conviction of race track owner Joseph A. De Francis last summer for illegally donating money to Glendening under the names of relatives.

Investigations by The Sun later found that at least nine other individuals and companies appeared to have broken Maryland's campaign finance law by contributing too much money to various candidates in the last election cycle. The violations had gone undetected by state authorities, partly because of the difficulty of monitoring contributions currently recorded only on thousands of pages of paper documents.

Senate's view looms larger

Both Taylor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller made campaign finance reform a priority for the 1997 session. However, the two presiding officers took decidedly different approaches in the legislation, with Taylor's containing some significant reforms that Miller's omitted.

The final product looks closer to the Senate's position. It omits Taylor-sponsored measures that would have required listing of the employers and occupations of large donors and more frequent disclosures by campaigns that are in the process of raising large sums of money.

Those bills, passed by the House, remain bottled up in the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.

The chairman of that panel, Sen. Clarence W. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat, would not say yesterday whether he would bring either measure up for a vote. However, Sen. Michael J. Collins, the Baltimore County Democrat who heads the election law subcommittee, said he doubted any more campaign finance bills would come to the floor this year.

Packages, bill mixed

The legislation approved yesterday combines elements of the Taylor and Miller reform packages with parts of an enforcement bill proposed by Del. Maggie I. McIntosh, a Baltimore Democrat, and Sen. Brian E. Frosh, a Montgomery Democrat.

The computerization provisions require candidates for statewide office to file their campaign disclosures with the state elections board in an electronic format starting in November. Candidates for such offices as state senator, delegate and county executive have until November 1999 to comply.

The elections board is required to make those records easily accessible to the public.

The legislation also places new curbs on the political activities of lobbyists, forbidding them to act as fund-raisers for the governor and other statewide candidates. Another provision would prohibit legislators and statewide candidates from fund raising during the 90-day General Assembly session.

The enforcement provisions keep some of the McIntosh-Frosh proposal's sharpest teeth. The legislation creates civil penalties of up to $5,000 for election law violations -- eliminating the need to prove a violator's criminal intent -- and increases the criminal fine for willful violations to $25,000 from the present $1,000.

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