Fund diversion irks state GOP

Plan could curb gubernatorial efforts

General Assembly 2009

April 14, 2009|By Laura Smitherman | Laura Smitherman,laura.smitherman@baltsun.com

Maryland Republicans are fuming over a plan to divert up to $2 million from a public campaign fund that could be tapped by a challenger to Gov. Martin O'Malley next year, warning that the move smacks of partisanship and could lead to a court fight.

GOP lawmakers raised objections Monday when the General Assembly approved the state's $13.8 billion budget on the final day of the legislative session. In one of many transfers from various reserve accounts to balance the operating budget, the Democrat-crafted spending plan calls for taking up to $2 million from the Fair Campaign Financing Fund.

That won't leave enough for Republicans to effectively use public financing in the 2010 primary and general election against O'Malley, a Democrat who is widely expected to seek re-election and has already raised about $2 million, GOP lawmakers argued. The fund now holds more than $5 million.

"To take away a penny of this fund is wrong," said Sen. E.J. Pipkin, an Eastern Shore Republican. "This body is affecting the next election. It's outrageous."

Del. Christopher B. Shank, the minority whip from Washington County, said the state "is opening itself up to legal action" by raiding the account.

Paid for with voluntary income tax contributions, the fund can be tapped by candidates for governor and lieutenant governor. But no one has used it since Republican Ellen R. Sauerbrey in her failed 1994 race for governor against Parris N. Glendening.

Mike Pappas, a potential Republican candidate for governor next year, has indicated that he might seek public campaign financing. The construction lawyer's campaign manager said Pappas might consider a lawsuit.

Enacted in 1974 in the aftermath of the Watergate scandal in Washington, the Fair Campaign Financing Act was intended to diminish the influence of lobbyists and political donors. A more expansive public campaign finance law, which would have covered members of the General Assembly, failed this year despite high-profile Democratic backing.

Sen. Ulysses Currie, chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, defended the diversion from the fund to pay for new optical-scan voting machines, which allow for a manual recount and which will replace the state's much-criticized touch-screen system. He noted that the attorney general's office has given the transfer its blessing.

In a letter, Assistant Attorney General Sandra Benson Brantley concluded that the fund cannot function as originally intended and that using the money to enhance the electoral process would be legal. But Republicans point to a 1981 attorney general's opinion that found a transfer from the fund would not have been legal.

Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Bykowicz contributed to this article.

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