Time for real reform

March 22, 2007

The latest revelations from the public corruption case against former state Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell should be making legislators exceedingly uneasy. In the lengthy transcript of secret recordings of Mr. Bromwell released this week at The Sun's request, the former Finance Committee chairman brags repeatedly about the big money and big influence he wields. He suggests a mutually advantageous relationship with the large corporations his committee was supposed to be regulating.

Mr. Bromwell has yet to be tried, but the indictment of business-as-usual in Annapolis is scathing. The message of the transcripts is that companies such as Comcast are expected to do favors for a top leader in the General Assembly. This isn't how public policy ought to be conducted. Lawmakers should do more than pay lip service to that fact; they need to take a stand.

That can start with public funding of political campaigns. If the aim is to put distance between monied special interests and legislators, reducing the importance of fundraising is a logical first step. The Bromwell case may not turn on campaign donations, but the effect of big money of all kinds on the process is clear.

Such reform legislation - modeled after successful programs in Maine and Arizona - is pending before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Candidates for House and Senate seats would have to raise a minimum amount in small donations from district voters to qualify. Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the committee's chairwoman, supports this approach and - despite opposition from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller - is expected to bring it to a vote soon.

Campaign finance reform can be costly, but it's fiscally (and ethically) responsible. The proposal even includes a provision that delays its implementation until the General Assembly raises enough revenue to close the projected deficit.

From Spiro T. Agnew to lobbyist Gerard E. Evans, Maryland has a checkered past when it comes to public corruption. If legislators want to show that the State House has changed, they need to do more than make the claim; they need to pass this plan.

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