Politics and money

March 04, 2005

TO SEE THE disagreeable effects of campaign donations on public policy, look no further than the turf war between optometrists and ophthalmologists. Maryland is the only state in which optometrists are not permitted to apply anti-inflammatory steroids and antiviral drugs on the eye, or remove small particles with a device called the Alger Brush. Why? Because ophthalmologists currently perform these routine procedures and they have clout in Annapolis.

Optometrists argue that not one of the 49 other states has experienced problems with optometrists doing these things. But efforts to change this practice face an uphill battle. The ophthalmologists have a powerful weapon -- their history of generous donations to political campaigns. Indeed, last summer, lobbyist Joseph A. Schwartz III gave this blunt advice in a newsletter to doctors: "Run, do not walk to your checkbook" to fight optometry legislation.

This would be an amusing tale of the foibles of politicos if it weren't such a widespread problem. On issue after issue, it's obvious that big money equals big clout in Annapolis. A recent study noted that an unprecedented $840,000 has been donated by slot machine advocates to candidates and various political action committees in Maryland since 1999.

The only real solution to this problem is to reduce the politicians' dependence on donations. Fortunately, there's a way to do this pending in the legislature -- public financing of campaigns. Maine and Arizona have already instituted such a system.

Here's how Maryland's version would work: Someone running for office could qualify for public funding by collecting donations of $5 or more from at least 282 registered voters in a district. A Senate candidate would then be eligible for $50,000 in a contested primary and $50,000 for a contested general election, while House candidates could receive slightly less.

Granted, this is not a perfect solution. The plan benefits incumbents -- at least it hasn't seemed to give challengers in Maine or Arizona any great advantage. But public financing clearly reduces the clout of special interests -- and for a modest cost. The closing of a corporate tax loophole (the ability of businesses to declare certain "nonbusiness income" as tax exempt) would pay for the program's $5 million annual budget.

The legislation faces its biggest hurdle in the Senate. Two Baltimore-area senators whose support is critical are Joan Carter Conway and Paula C. Hollinger, who chairs the committee that oversees campaign finance laws. It also greatly depends on Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller. Usually hostile to campaign finance reforms, Mr. Miller may see the bill as a way to counter Republicans' recent fund-raising gains.

In gambling terms, campaign finance reform is always a long shot, but the odds on this particular idea appear to be dropping. Special interests helped pump $75 million in campaign contributions into Maryland's last election. It doesn't take 20/20 vision to see how all that money can have a negative influence on Annapolis. Just ask your neighborhood optometrist.

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