Public financing of election campaigns finds support in Md.

Report by liberal group wants to take lobbyists' money out of politics

August 05, 2004|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

Public financing of state political campaigns would offset business lobbyists' financial advantages over advocates for nonprofit organizations and social causes in the Maryland General Assembly, according to a report released yesterday by a nonprofit group.

The report by Progressive Maryland, a liberal advocacy group, argues that removing the influence of campaign contributions would end the "sense of quid pro quo" that ensures corporate lobbyists' access to lawmakers.

"Typically, you look at proliferating lobbyists, and most people focus on that as the problem. What we're trying to say is, it's merely the ugliest manifestation of the deeper problem, which is too much corporate money corrupting our democracy," said Sean Dobson, deputy director of the group and an author of the report.

"It's the contribution that creates the access. The corporate lobbyists merely seal the deal."

More than 1,000 entities were registered to lobby in Annapolis for this year's General Assembly session, but the report focuses on the 111 that spent more than $50,000 each to advance their causes. Corporate interests backed most of them, the report says.

Large for-profit organizations outspent their public interest counterparts by 5-to-1, according to Progressive Maryland's calculations.

The group linked legislative successes of utilities and banking interests last session to their lobbying expenditures: electric companies were not held accountable for delays in restoring service after Tropical Storm Isabel last year and banks were allowed to shelter profits from state taxes through use of Delaware holding companies, which is illegal for other businesses.

Dobson acknowledged, however, that he could not prove there was a direct connection between those industries' lobbying expenditures and their legislative successes.

"Can I read the mind of an individual lawmaker? No," Dobson said. "However, at the institutional level and in the aggregate, there's no question that all the corporate money skews results."

The report calls for a campaign finance system that would allow candidates who can demonstrate a base of support in their districts the choice of accepting public financing for their campaign instead of seeking contributions.

A commission created by the legislature and headed by former University of Baltimore dean Carl W. Stenberg proposed such a system in February, and similar ideas have been enacted in Arizona and Maine. Bills that would have enacted such a system in Maryland failed this year in the General Assembly, but Dobson said he expects lawmakers will try again.

Henry Fawell, spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., said the governor "has never been enthusiastic" about public financing of campaigns. It's never garnered much support in the legislature either, he added.

"Last year's proposal came with a $27 million price tag at a time when the state simply cannot afford it," Fawell said.

James Browning, director of Common Cause/Maryland, which also backs the public financing plan, said he believes public financing would pay for itself because legislators not beholden to corporate interests would be less reluctant to close tax loopholes.

Browning said the state could directly limit lobbyists' influence by enforcing the ethics laws the Maryland already has. But taking corporate money out of politics would help, he said.

To view the full report by Progressive Maryland, go to www.baltimoresun.com/lobbyistreport.

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