It was a year for stalling reform bills

The Political Game

Session: Three efforts at changing campaign financing laws didn't even make it to a vote.

April 20, 2004|By Michael Dresser and David Nitkin | Michael Dresser and David Nitkin,SUN STAFF

IT WAS THE session that wasn't ready for reform.

When the General Assembly adjourned for the year last week, it left without acting on several bills aimed at reducing the role of big money in politics -- or at least shedding some light on the process.

Three such measures died in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee without being brought up for a vote.

One was a sweeping proposal, the product of a two-year task force study, to institute a system of public financing of General Assembly campaigns. Another would have reined in the use of multiple businesses controlled by a single person to evade campaign donation limits. A third sought to curb the practice of reporting large amounts of campaign money as unattributed "lump sums."

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, chairwoman of the committee, said there wasn't enough time to address those issues because of the panel's heavy workload. In particular, the Baltimore County Democrat said, the committee's work on the so-called "flush tax" bill, calling for a sewer bill surcharge, took up a lot of time.

Hollinger said the committee didn't act on the public financing bill because of the cost.

James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland, said he's heard such excuses before.

"That committee has become the graveyard for campaign finance reform bills," he said.

Browning acknowledged the budget details of the public financing bill hadn't been fully worked out. However, he expressed particular concern over the failure of the bill closing the loophole that allows use of multiple limited liability corporations and partnerships to evade spending limits.

That loophole has allowed such individuals as racetrack owner and developer William Rickman Jr., Orioles owner Peter G. Angelos and developer Kingdon Gould to make donations far in excess of the legal limit of $4,000 to any one candidate and $10,000 to all candidates during a four-year election cycle.

"What we're seeing with the LLCs completely undermines the reforms of the past," he said.

Browning said one obstacle to the bill's passage is that there isn't a major political corruption case in the headlines. "Historically, it takes a scandal to really focus the public's attention," he said.

Given Maryland's rich history of political shenanigans, Browning said, "I'm completely confident" another scandal will be along soon.

@SUBHEDTeachers score victory on several fronts

Maryland's teachers proved again this year why they are perhaps the most powerful lobbying force in Annapolis, and why the animosity between Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. and them is unlikely to subside any time soon.

Not only did educators mobilize 6,000 participants for one of the largest State House rallies in recent history and push through legislation preserving the costly education initiative known as the Thornton Plan, they also persuaded House of Delegates members to walk a political gangplank by voting to increase the state sales tax rate from five percent to six percent to pay for schools.

The tax plan died when Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller refused to consider it, in light of Ehrlich's threatened veto.

But perhaps the most impressive achievement of teachers this year was fighting back a fee increase that would have hit their own wallets.

Ehrlich's original proposed budget, released in January, was balanced in part through an increase in teacher certification fees from $10 for a five-year license, to $75 for the license. The increase was estimated to raise $1.6 million for the Maryland State Department of Education, and the governor proposed reducing general tax dollars into the agency by the same amount.

The fee has not been increased for decades, according to state officials, but the 59,000-member Maryland State Teachers Association protested loudly.

"It's unreasonable when you consider the salary that some teachers make," said Debra Williams-Garner, the union's head of public affairs. "We consider it to be a teachers tax."

The union was among the most vocal advocates for the sales tax increase to pay for Thornton, but apparently not all taxes are equal.

"The sales tax increase would benefit education," Williams-Garner said. "To raise the certification fee, it is a teachers tax. It penalizes teachers."

Commenting on the teachers' lobbying effort, Ehrlich spokesman Henry Fawell said "everyone wants someone else to pay the price."

"It is unfortunate that they thought it appropriate to raise the sales tax on low-income Marylanders," Fawell said, "but it was not appropriate to be part of the solution."

The teacher certification fee increase was killed during final budget negotiations as the Assembly drew to a close.

That means teachers were treated by the Assembly better than motorists (whose registrations will rise $47 or $72 every two years, depending on vehicle size, to fund road construction) or toilet users (who will begin paying $30 a year for sewage treatment plant upgrades).

"It could make a big difference," Williams-Garner said, "especially to a new teacher."

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