Quieting big money

February 14, 2007

If lawmakers are serious about reforming Maryland's tax code in the near future, they ought to reform the state's campaign finance laws first. The reason is simple: Tax laws are filled with loopholes and inequities because big political donors wield enormous influence. That's just as true in Annapolis as it is in Washington. And it will always be true - unless legislators embrace the public financing of campaigns.

Want the General Assembly to pass your bill? Any lobbyist worth his Guccis will tell you that you first have to donate money to the appropriate pols. Lawmakers may claim they aren't swayed by donations, but even the most adamant defenders will admit there's at least an appearance of impropriety.

Take the deregulation of electricity. While Democrats and Republicans alike were expressing regrets over the 1999 law as energy prices skyrocketed last year, it should be remembered that many of these same folks were enthusiastic supporters eight years earlier - when they happily took contributions from the utility companies.

Legislation pending in Annapolis would allow, but not require, candidates to be far less dependent on private donations. It's modeled after well-established public campaign financing laws in Maine and Arizona. Connecticut approved a similar approach last year.

Here's how it works: A candidate could qualify for public financing by meeting certain criteria intended to weed out the non-serious. A participant would have to collect at least $5 each from 350 or more registered voters within the specified district. The candidate also would have to raise at least $6,750 in total contributions, all of which would eventually be turned over to the state anyway.

In return, a candidate for a House seat could receive as much as $80,000 for the primary and general elections; a Senate candidate $100,000 (depending on whether it was a contested race) in public funds. That's about the average spent by candidates in recent elections.

It wouldn't be cheap. The anticipated $30 million cost per election cycle (or about $7.5 million a year) would be allocated from the state's $70 million unclaimed property fund (revenues produced from the sale of abandoned vehicles and the like).

The bill is far from perfect. The $6,750 threshold is probably too high and tilts too much in favor of incumbents. But that can be easily corrected. In the last election, Maryland candidates collected more than $93 million in political donations. Big money like that is bound to influence policy for years to come - unless politicians have the option to just say no.

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