House closes loophole on contributions

Reports would be filed before session

March 20, 2002|By Howard Libit | Howard Libit,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates unanimously approved legislation yesterday to close a loophole in Maryland's campaign finance law by requiring lawmakers to promptly report contributions received on the eve of the General Assembly session.

The Senate has approved an identical bill, so final passage of a law long sought by watchdog groups is considered certain.

The measure would change the date for lawmakers to file annual campaign finance reports from November to late January, ensuring timely disclosure of money they raise in the weeks before the session begins.

"It's a big improvement," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "It's about 80 percent of what we want."

Currently, 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 session, many raise large amounts in the two months between the reporting deadline in November and the session's start the second week of January.

A study by Common Cause found that House and Senate leaders raised 90 percent of their money during that period. Common Cause suggests that groups with major pieces of legislation before the Assembly are giving large sums to lawmakers just before the session begins, knowing that the money won't be reported until after their bills have been decided.

Many legislators say it doesn't matter when they raise money because all contributions are reported eventually, but add that the change is worth making to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

"It's important for the public to have confidence in the General Assembly," said Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat who is a sponsor of the legislation. "It's a good thing to do because it's about boosting public confidence."

Collins and his election law subcommittee killed legislation last year that would have closed the disclosure gap by adding an extra reporting period in January for lawmakers who raise more than $5,000 in the weeks before the session. That proposal was introduced again this year by Del. Barry Glassman, a Harford County Republican.

Collins said senators didn't want to make more work for campaign treasurers by requiring an extra report. So they chose to change the date for everyone to ensure all contributions up to the start of the session are included.

Glassman and Common Cause said they still prefer his version. But recognizing that the Senate wasn't going to change its position, Glassman and the House committee amended his bill to make it identical to what the Senate already approved.

"It closes the disclosure gap, but my bill would have shone the spotlight more brightly on the people who raised a lot of money right before the start of session," Glassman said. "At least this makes sure that everything is disclosed. People will just have to look a little harder if they want to see who is raising a lot."

The House Commerce and Government Matters Committee has killed a second campaign finance reform bill. That would have required 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.

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