Cost concerns imperil campaign funding bill

State Senate president says public financing proposal would worsen Maryland's projected deficit

March 31, 2007|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,Sun reporter

Amid a highly charged court case about the role of monied interests in Maryland politics, the state Senate is set to debate public financing for General Assembly races. But concerns about the measure's cost - more than $30 million over four years - could sidetrack the proposal.

The House of Delegates passed a similar bill last year, and leaders there remain confident that it could win House approval again. A Senate committee endorsed the plan this week, and backers think their chances have improved since the release this month of FBI transcripts of conversations showing former Democratic Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, in a meeting with an undercover agent, apparently bragging about doing the bidding of corporations who funded his campaigns.

"There are lots of candidates, including incumbents, who don't want to do the `dial for dollars' to ask big-pocket contributors to give them a few bucks," said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, the Prince George's Democrat who sponsored the bill. "Many people don't want to be touched with the stain going around with big money in politics."

Even so, backers acknowledge that the prospects for the bill, which is due for debate in the full Senate on Monday, appear murky given the strong skepticism of Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller and others in that chamber.

"It's the wrong bill at the wrong time," Miller said.

The public financing proposal mirrors legislation that has been in effect in Maine and Arizona for the past four elections. It would create a fund that would allocate up to $100,000 for a candidate in a contested state Senate race and $80,000 for a candidate in a contested House race.

Participation would be voluntary. To qualify, a candidate would have to show a minimum level of public support by collecting 350 contributions of $5 each and additional contributions totaling at least $6,750.

The vast majority of bills that are recommended by the standing committees of the General Assembly win easy passage. The legislature works on a strong committee system, where members specialize in a few areas of policy and generally trust the judgment of people on other committees.

But campaign finance - a topic in which every politician is an expert - is different.

A similar proposal cleared the Senate committee at the end of last year's General Assembly session, but backers, facing significant opposition on the floor, withdrew it before it could receive a vote.

Advocates of the bill worry that this could happen again, and they are trying to pressure senators to vote for it. Common Cause Maryland and Progressive Maryland, two government watchdog groups, have teamed up to lobby senators through phone banks and e-mail campaigns.

Backers of public financing think they have extra ammunition this year in the FBI tapes of Bromwell, a once-powerful politician who has been indicted on charges including racketeering, mail fraud and extortion. In the tapes, he calls himself a "rainmaker" for corporate friends. Bromwell has pleaded not guilty.

"There has always been a need for this, but we think the revelations of the Bromwell tapes show an extreme coziness with corporate special interests," said Sean Dobson, the interim executive director of Progressive Maryland. "That creates at the very least a terrible perception that these monied special interests have too much clout in the legislative process."

The House version has not yet gotten a vote in the Ways and Means Committee. Del. Jon S. Cardin, the Baltimore County Democrat who sponsored the bill, said he won't seek a vote unless the Senate acts first.

Cardin said most candidates in Maine and Arizona use the system, and he said incumbents still get elected at high rates there.

"It works," Cardin said. "It allows people to keep the appearance of special interest influence out of their campaigns."

But Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, said the public financing bill is "a wonderful concept and a very bad piece of legislation."

Zirkin, who voted against the bill in committee, said the legislation could, in some cases, cause incumbents to forgo public financing and raise more money than they would have otherwise because their challengers will be so well-funded. And, he said, the restrictions that candidates would have to agree to with regard to spending the money would raise serious free speech issues.

"If this were to take special interest influence out of politics, I would be all for it," Zirkin said. "But the details are just ripe for abuse."

In the end, the cost of the bill could be the proposal's most serious obstacle.

Most of the money for the system would come from an unclaimed property fund, not tax dollars. But the proceeds of that fund, which generates about $7 million a year, are now funneled into the state's coffers. If it were used for campaigns, the state would either have to cut spending on other programs or raise more revenue to make up the difference.

Miller has worked to kill any legislation this year that would worsen the state's projected budget shortfall next year, and he said he will oppose it for that reason.

Proponents inserted a mechanism into the bill that they believe will alleviate that problem: It would only go into effect if the state passes a $1 billion-plus package of tax increases or other revenue measures, such as slot machine gambling, within the next year. But Miller said that even if the state could afford it, the symbolism would be poison with voters.

Said Miller: "How can we go to the public [next year] and ask for higher taxes and at the same time ask them to pay money to finance our campaigns?"

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