Senate panel airs public campaign finance proposal

In effort to curb sway of special interests, measure would cover legislative contests

February 23, 2007|By Melissa Harris | Melissa Harris,sun reporter

A proposal aimed at reducing the influence of special interests in legislative campaigns by having Maryland taxpayers pay for them was debated in a state Senate committee yesterday.

The bill's primary Senate sponsor, Prince George's County Democrat Paul G. Pinsky, said the bill would reduce the appearance of favoritism among legislators and enable candidates to focus on issues, not fundraisers.

To be eligible for "public financing," candidates would have to raise seed money in sums of $5 or more from about 350 registered voters in their districts in addition to $6,750 in other contributions.

Once the public money was deposited in a candidate's account, he or she would be limited to spending a total of $100,000 for a primary and general election for the Senate, and to $80,000 for the House. The candidate would have to reject private contributions, except for a small amount from the candidate's political party.

If a competitor opted out of the system, a candidate could spend up to twice that amount.

The House of Delegates passed the measure last year, as did a Senate committee that handles election issues. But it was not considered by the full Senate.

Public financing passed the General Assembly in 1974 but wasn't used until 20 years later because state Democrats blocked implementation, fearing it would give Republican opponents an advantage, according to a 1998 Sun article.

Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey used the funds in her 1994 race for governor and nearly won the state's highest post. The legislature repealed public financing after its first and only use in the state, according to a 2006 Sun article.

The current proposal would cost an estimated $7 million, raised from state sales of unclaimed property, such as abandoned cars.

Maine and Arizona have similar public-financing systems for state races, and they are being used with greater frequency, according to Progressive Maryland, one of the key lobbying groups pushing the reforms.

Critics say the measure wouldn't eliminate the influence of special interest groups, which could run issue ads independent of candidates. Some have also expressed concern about spending millions for public financing when there are more pressing needs.

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