Access in Annapolis

Our view : State Senate no longer can afford to block campaign finance reform

March 06, 2009

Maryland has seen more than its share of State House scandals, big and small. The latest involves Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the powerful Senate Budget and Taxation Committee, who is being investigated for taking - but not reporting - money from a grocery store chain.

Whether this stems from absent-mindedness, as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller has claimed, or Senator Currie had some quid pro quo arrangement with Shoppers Food and Pharmacy remains to be seen. No matter the outcome of this case, the public ought to be concerned about whether Maryland lawmakers can be bought and sold like so many hothouse tomatoes. Outright bribes are illegal, of course, but campaign donations are a subtler thing.

Contribution limits are helpful but not enough.The best alternative is public campaign financing. Such a system - modeled after programs in Maine, Connecticut and Arizona - has in the past won support in the House but has never made it out of the Senate. It's too late for the current election cycle, but this is precisely the right time to move forward with election reform in 2014. The program would cost an estimated $30 million (about $2 per resident per year) and would simply guarantee that credible candidates - those who have demonstrated support from a sufficient number of small donors in their districts - would be eligible for public financing on a voluntary basis.

This probably would not cause a massive turnover of incumbents. But it would mean that those who are elected to the House or Senate in five years, incumbent and challengers alike, could be less beholden to monied interests and more focused on the will of voters. That might not prevent another political scandal, but it certainly would narrow the opportunities for one.

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