Miller switch on public campaign funding

Senate president expected to announce support today for bill that would apply to General Assembly races

General Assembly 2009

March 06, 2009|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

Prospects for public financing of General Assembly campaigns should get a major boost today, when Sen. President Thomas V. Mike Miller is expected to announce his support for a plan similar to one that failed in his chamber by a single vote in 2007, when he opposed it.

A previous opponent of public campaign financing, Miller lent his support to this year's version after good-government advocates agreed that traditional limits on campaign contributions should be raised for the first time in years, according to a person familiar with the proposal. The initiative would be paid for through voluntary taxpayer contributions rather than general tax dollars, another change that Miller sought.

Supporters of the legislation, which would go into effect in 2011, declined to speak publicly about it yesterday, not wanting to upstage his announcement.

Miller, a Calvert County Democrat and prodigious fundraiser, has previously criticized the cost to taxpayers of public campaign financing, which analysts have estimated at $28 million over a four-year election cycle. "Miller has the muscle to get it through the Senate, and he wants to get it through the Senate," said Sean Dobson of Progressive Maryland, which backs the bill. Dobson called it a "giant, systemic reform" that would place Maryland with the handful of states - including Maine and Arizona - that offer full public financing of campaigns to candidates who meet a minimum threshold of viability.

The funding mechanism proposed in the bill is a $5 income tax checkoff. In other states, such a system allows filers to direct $5 of their taxes to a fund used to finance campaigns, according to Common Cause. Previous versions of the Maryland bill would have also relied on money from unclaimed property that reverts annually to the state.

The person who has seen the legislation described it as a "pilot" program, with a limited pot of money available to candidates on a first-come-first-served basis. Opponents of public financing say it fails to mute the influence of lobbyists and well-heeled donors and is just a costly entitlement program for politicians.

"Obviously, they've been trying for a long time to get this passed in Maryland, and certainly the support of the Senate leader may make it easier," said Sean Parnell, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, a Virginia nonprofit that opposes campaign finance regulation. "But it doesn't change the fact that this is a bad idea that has failed elsewhere."

Senate candidates would get $50,000 in public financing for contested primary and general election races, or $100,000 total. House candidates would get $40,000 for each election, or $80,000 in all.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, the bill's lead sponsor, said he was "cautiously optimistic" that the measure would make it to the governor's desk this year. Elected officials would "rather talk and discuss policy than have to fund-raise," said Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat. "I hate it. Does it buy influence? I think it does."

For candidates who select traditional financing, the limit for individual donations to a single campaign would rise from $4,000 to $4,400, and the limit for political action committee donations would go from $6,000 to $6,600. The four-year limit for people to give to all campaigns would go from $10,000 to $15,000.

A spokesman for Gov. Martin O'Malley said he supports the goals of public financing but had not reviewed the legislation.

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