Good government

March 08, 2004

PUBLIC DISTRUST of government starts here: A lawmaker accepts a large donation from a special interest. Perhaps it's a big corporation or a union. Then he turns around and votes for a bill that serves his benefactor with a tax break or a fat contract.

In Annapolis, as in many legislatures, some limits to this sleaziness exist. Politicians can't raise money during the 90-day session. Donations must be disclosed. But ultimately, the essential conflict still flourishes - politicians need political donations like addicts need a fix. Their most reliable sources are usually the institutions that have the greatest financial stake in state government. And the addiction threatens to get worse as campaigns get more expensive and media-dependent.

The solution is simple. Make politicians less desperate for donations. And the only way to do that is to embrace public financing of political campaigns. Wait, we know what you're thinking: "Good luck changing the system." Politicians react to public financing like the Three Stooges catching a whiff of Limburger. But thanks to a recent state study, there's a sensible - and entirely voluntary - solution on the table.

The proposal offered by Montgomery County Democrat John Adams Hurson (and co-sponsored by 28 fellow delegates) works like this: People running for the state Senate or House of Delegates can qualify for public financing by first collecting 282 small donations ($5 minimum) from voters registered in their district. House candidates could receive up to $80,000 in state funds, Senate candidates up to $100,000.

Adopting such a plan would cost about $27 million over each four-year election cycle and would be paid for by a voluntary check-off on tax returns, as well as surcharges on certain civil and criminal fines. Once a politician accepted the state money, his or her campaign spending would be capped.

That's not cheap, but it could prove effective. The system would cost taxpayers less than $7 million per year. That's about 0.03 percent of the state's $24 billion budget (and less than $2 per resident per year). And look what it buys - less influence from the lobbyists and corporate interests who pumped $75 million into the state's 2002 election. Not to mention the opportunity for an even footing for newcomers running against incumbents. A candidate with broad community support but who wasn't necessarily rich - or attractive to wealthy donors - would now have the money to be heard by voters.

Of course it's this last benefit that makes politicians shy. Who wants to hand your future challengers tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions? The general public has to get past this philosophical hurdle, too. A lot of people don't like their tax dollars paid out to help a politician they detest. But that's the price of fairness.

Arizona and Maine already have adopted similar measures. Politicians in those two states are happy they don't have to spend so much time raising money for their next campaign. The biggest criticism? Outsiders grouse that incumbents still get re-elected more often than not. Still, it's much harder to measure the chief benefit, a reduced opportunity for corruption and an improved public perception of government. The bill in Annapolis has the support of dozens of organizations, including many labor unions, civil rights organizations and environmental groups.

How refreshing it would be if Maryland were to become famous for having something we surely can't claim now - a squeaky clean state capital.

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