Dead again?

Senate to restudy bill on public financing of campaigns

General Assembly 2009

March 26, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,

A proposal for public financing of General Assembly campaigns appears dead this year after a fiery debate in the Maryland Senate over the idea of using taxpayer dollars for political activities.

Senators made several changes to the bill, argued over its necessity and complained that the full implications were unclear before voting, 27-20, Wednesday to send the bill back to committee. The procedural move means that further work on the bill is unlikely this legislative session, which ends in less than three weeks.

"I think it's done for the year," Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller said after the vote. "The general sentiment was, we should be focusing on the budget, and this would be perceived as assisting ourselves in campaigning and electioneering as contrasted to working for the public good."

With backing from Miller, who had previously opposed public campaign financing, supporters thought the bill would pass in the Senate. The House of Delegates has not acted on the bill this year but passed similar legislation several years ago.

A fragile coalition was jeopardized when the Senate passed an amendment that closed a loophole that would have allowed individuals to avoid campaign finance limits by giving through multiple limited-liability companies. Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat who sponsored the bill, called it a "delicate compromise" that was "soured" by the amendment.

The bill, long sought by government watchdog groups, would have set up a system for candidates to opt into the public financing system, paid for partly through a $5 income tax checkoff. In general, a candidate would have been able to get up to $100,000 for a primary and general election cycle. The bill also would have raised limits on campaign contributions for the first time in years.

Some advocates held out hope that the bill could be resurrected, including Sean Dobson of Progressive Maryland, who said he was talking to lawmakers about bringing the bill to the floor again. He said there is more sentiment than ever among voters for curbing the influence of big campaign donors.

"With any big, complicated reform, sometimes there's confusion or things need to be revoted or people need to take a breather and think about it," Dobson said.

Sen. Bobby A. Zirkin, a Baltimore County Democrat, led the opposition to the bill. He said the proposal would have diverted money from the state's operating budget, which is straining under huge shortfalls. "People can't find money for their BGE bills, and yet we're finding money for campaign bumper stickers and yard signs," he said.

Senators voted to accept a Zirkin amendment that would have ensured that only money that taxpayers voluntarily pay above their tax liability would go to campaign financing. Originally, the bill would have diverted $5 from the taxes owed to the campaign system.

After further changes, several senators said the chamber was moving too fast and that they did not fully understand the impact of the amended bill. In the end, they decided to refer the bill back to the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.

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