Overdue reform

December 16, 2007

Rarely does a week go by without a headline demonstrating the ethical quandaries posed by political fundraising. Most recently, Anne Arundel County Executive John R. Leopold drew attention for receiving more than $100,000 at a fundraiser hosted by Sallie Mae Executive Chairman Albert L. Lord, who, four days later, won a key approval from the County Council for an 18-hole golf course he's building.

"No quid pro quo," insists Mr. Leopold, and indeed, the proposal had no apparent opposition on the council to overcome - but the timing stank.

So it also may have been with the matter of political fundraisers held during the General Assembly special session last month. Lawmakers said the conflict was unavoidable, but how many donors had a direct stake in their votes? Probably quite a few.

And if the sad case of Thomas L. Bromwell, the once-powerful former state senator who next year begins serving a seven-year federal sentence for bribery, taught us anything, it's the corrupting influence of money. Even the appearance of impropriety can have a debilitating effect.

That's why high on the agenda for state legislators when they reconvene in January is a proposal to create a system of public financing of political campaigns. Senators, delegates and their challengers would be freed from the ethical uncertainties posed by taking money from individuals with high-stakes decisions pending before the state.

It's a system that has worked well in Arizona and Maine. Candidates qualify by raising enough seed money from enough contributors. They can then qualify for public funds - the amount depends on several variables, including whether their race is contested and whether it's a House or Senate seat. The estimated $7 million annual price tag for the program would be financed by funds the state collects each year from unclaimed accounts.

The House approved the proposal in 2006, but the bill fell just one vote short in the Senate last year. That should change, particularly if two suburban Baltimore senators, Edward J. Kasemeyer and Bobby A. Zirkin, will recall the commitment to reform they both preached as candidates in 2006, and endorse the measure. The program's cost isn't cheap, but lessening the often-harmful influence of money in Annapolis would be a bargain at twice the price.

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