House OKs change in finance filings

Reports of donations would be filed earlier

March 09, 2001|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates voted overwhelmingly yesterday to pass a bill that would close a significant loophole in Maryland's campaign-finance law.

The measure would require legislators who raise more than $5,000 in the weeks preceding the legislative session to report the donations right away -- rather than waiting for the next campaign-finance-reporting date almost a year later.

"I'm not opposed to people raising money," said Del. Barry Glassman, a Harford County Republican and sponsor of the bill. "I just think there should be timely disclosure. It should be reported sooner than nine or 10 months after the money is raised."

The bill will go to the state Senate, where its prospects are uncertain. A similar measure died in the Senate last year without coming up for a committee vote.

"I don't think there's a need for it," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, co-chairman of the legislature's joint ethics committee and a member of the Senate panel that killed last year's bill.

"I have not heard complaints from any citizens group or any organizations where they have demonstrated any connection or any difference between fund raising at the beginning of the session and fund raising in the fall or the spring," Collins said.

Under current campaign-finance law, candidates are required to report their annual contributions each November -- except in election years, when filings are required more frequently.

Although lawmakers are prohibited from raising money during the 90-day General Assembly session, many raise large amounts in the two months between the reporting deadline in November and the start of the session the second week of January.

In a review of November's campaign-finance reports, Common Cause/Maryland, the political watchdog group, found that donors gave $1.35 million to candidates after the November 1999 filing deadline but before the beginning of the 2000 legislative session.

Common Cause suggests that groups with major pieces of legislation before the Assembly could be donating large sums to lawmakers before the opening of the session, knowing that the money won't be reported until after the issue has been decided.

"There are some legislators who are raising 70 percent to 90 percent of their money right before the start of the legislative session," said Janet Levine, president of the Common Cause/Maryland board of directors. "But they don't have to report the money until almost a year later, when no one is looking any more."

The bill -- approved by the House, 128-4 -- would require lawmakers who collect more than $5,000 between the November reporting date and the start of the session to file a report by the third Monday of the session.

In addition to members of the Assembly, the reporting requirement would apply to the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller. It is estimated the State Board of Elections would have to spent about $100,000 to update its computer system for the extra set of reports.

The biggest difference between this year's measure and the one proposed last year is the amount of contributions that would require the supplemental report. Last year's bill would have required the extra report from lawmakers who raised $1,000 in the weeks before the session.

"We decided that upping the figure to $5,000 still solves the reporting problem because most of the fund raising goes well above $5,000," Glassman said. "I think that the higher figure helped it win the strong support in the House. Hopefully, it will do the same in the Senate."

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