Lawmakers ponder finance reform

Post-Enron mood buoys advocates' hopes

February 21, 2002|By Sarah Koenig | Sarah Koenig,SUN STAFF

Advocates for campaign finance reform, buoyed by a recent vote in the U.S. House of Representatives to ban unregulated donations to political parties, urged lawmakers yesterday to close what they believe are serious loopholes in Maryland laws regulating campaign contributions.

"I don't think there's been such a bright light shining on this issue since the Watergate scandal," Del. Elizabeth Bobo of Howard County told fellow members of the House Commerce and Government Matters Committee in Annapolis.

The committee is considering two reform bills. One would require legislators and other statewide officeholders who raise more than $5,000 in the weeks preceding the annual 90-day legislative session to promptly file an additional report listing those donations.

Current law includes an annual reporting date in November (except in election years, when more frequent reports are required), which means large amounts of money given to lawmakers just before the session are not reported until the following November. Lawmakers are prohibited from taking contributions during the session.

The other proposal, sponsored by Bobo, a Democrat, would require campaign reports to include the full name, address, occupation and employer of each contributor who gives more than $251 in a four-year election cycle.

A University of Maryland study released this week tracked Maryland's main contributors. The results showed that of the $16.7 million collected by General Assembly candidates for the 1998 election, $5.9 million came from business-related interests, more than from any other source.

Both proposals have met with approval in the House in the past two years - and then met their demise in a Senate subcommittee that has become known to advocates as the "graveyard" of campaign finance reform.

But the political landscape has changed this year, in part because of the Enron scandal, followed by the congressional vote for a soft-money ban. "Enron has made our case better than we ever did," James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said after the brief hearing. "Basically, they paid the cop on the beat to take a nap," he added, referring to donations Enron made to politicians, including President Bush.

Another new factor is a proposal by Sen. Michael J. Collins of Baltimore County, a Democrat who is chairman of the Senate subcommittee that has killed past reform bills. Collins' bill would move the annual November reporting date to mid-January.

Collins said he thinks the concern over presession fund raising "is imagined more than real."

Reform advocates disagree and said yesterday that they do not plan to support Collins' solution. Browning complains that Collins' bill eliminates an important reporting date six months after a general election. In addition, he believes that the public should know who gets contributions that could be linked to specific legislation.

A Common Cause study showed that leading lawmakers take in most of their contributions in the weeks before the legislative session, including Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., Del. Howard "Pete" Rawlings, chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and Collins, who says the money comes at that time because that is when he holds his annual fund-raiser.

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