Panel urges public campaign-financing plan

Some say measure has little chance of passing

January 15, 2004|By Michael Dresser | Michael Dresser,SUN STAFF

A task force on public financing of elections is recommending that Maryland adopt a plan to lessen the influence of big contributors on political campaigns by 2010.

In a report not yet completed, the Study Commission on Public Funding will urge legislators to adopt a comprehensive public financing plan for General Assembly campaigns and a more limited version for statewide races.

"The commission is well aware of the debate over the efficacy of using public monies to fund political campaigns but is of the opinion that the benefits of providing a public funding alternative substantially outweigh its cost," says a draft of the report obtained by The Sun.

Carl Stemberg, chairman of the commission and a former University of Baltimore dean, said a "ballpark" estimate of the cost if the system is fully implemented is $100 million.

Advocates of election reform call the recommendations an important step toward restoring public faith in the election process. Others cast doubt on whether the plan has any chance of passing.

"The chances of passing are less than one in a million. Legislators don't like it, and there's no money if they did," said Sen. Robert H. Kittleman, who served on the task force but dissented from its recommendation. "Incumbents don't want to give their challengers money."

Even if the measure did pass the legislature, it would face a likely veto by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., who called the idea a "nonstarter."

"If you have an even playing field between an incumbent and a challenger, and they both get to spend the same amount of money, by definition the incumbent has the advantage," Ehrlich said in an interview this week.

Members of the task force said the recommendations were patterned after public financing systems in Maine and Arizona.

Under the commission's recommendations, adopted last week, matching funds would be provided to candidates for statewide office who agree to abide by certain limits on how much they would raise and spend.

The report said that in gubernatorial campaigns, the state should provide $1 for every $2 raised from private sources for candidates who agree to accept an overall spending limit of $15.6 million. The system would replace a less generous public financing scheme for governor's races that hasn't been used by a major candidate since 1994.

The report urged a dollar-for-dollar matching scheme in the statewide races for comptroller and attorney general. The limit for private funds would be $825,000, to be matched by an equal sum of public money.

For a state Senate campaign, a candidate would have to raise 282 contributions of at least $5 from registered voters in order to qualify for the matching funds. Seed money would be limited to $3,500 for a Senate seat and $2,500 for a House of Delegates race.

Candidates who accepted public money would then be subject to overall spending limits of $100,000 for a contested Senate seat and $80,000 for most House races.

The commission recommends that the system be partly funded through a $5 checkoff option on tax returns.

If that and other potential sources identified by the task force don't raise enough money, the commission envisions using general funds to make up the difference.

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