Reform that counts

March 08, 2006

When issues are considered by the Maryland General Assembly, most anyone can speak out. But big campaign donors have a proverbial bullhorn - so powerful is the impact of money on decision-making. This fact is so ingrained in Annapolis that many lawmakers assume it has to be this way. But it doesn't, at least not to the degree it is now.

When politicians become too devoted to special-interest money, the solution is either to limit those donations - a reform that's been tried time after time with modest success - or to present those politicians with an alternative way to finance their campaigns. Thankfully, this once-controversial idea is gradually gaining acceptance in Annapolis.

Under legislation modeled after proven public financing systems in Arizona and Maine, candidates would be eligible to receive full funding of primary and general election campaigns beginning in 2010. The system works fairly simply: Someone pondering a run for the House or Senate must collect contributions of $10 or more from at least 400 registered voters in the candidate's district - and raise a total of at least $15,000 - to qualify. If successful, a Senate candidate could receive $50,000 from the state in a contested race; a House candidate up to $40,000. In return, neither could accept much more in private contributions.

The system would be voluntary. Its cost would be modest - and financed primarily by the state's disposition of abandoned property. The only money coming directly from taxpayers would be through the $5 checkoff on individual tax returns.

Critics question the value of this type of reform. It has not caused wholesale political turnover in Arizona and Maine. But that's beside the point. That someone could run for office without becoming beholden to special interests - or at least having the appearance of being obligated - brings greater integrity to policymaking.

The stakes are high. In 2002, $75 million was donated to Maryland candidates. This year's election is certain to break that record. The House appears ready to support reform this year, but the Senate is another matter. Much depends on Baltimore County Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, chairwoman of the Senate's Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, which is expected to soon vote on the bill. A recent poll found an overwhelming 73 percent of Marylanders support public campaign financing. Ms. Hollinger, who is running for a seat in Congress, should understand that post-Jack Abramoff voters are looking for leadership that backs reform, not business as usual.

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