Maryland lawmakers are rushing to develop a package of proposals in response to the recent U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down bans on corporate political spending - a ruling the state Senate president called "offensive" and "devastating to democracy."
The 5-4 decision last week, which gives companies the right to pay for advertisements and other material in political contests, is expected to directly affect two dozen states with laws similar to the federal ban that was struck down. Maryland, which has long allowed such independent expenditures, is not among them.
But a pair of Democratic senators say the state still needs safeguards against the ruling and want to use the publicity about it to thrust campaign financing into the spotlight during the 90-day session in a gubernatorial election year.
Sens. Jamie Raskin and Brian E. Frosh, who both represent Montgomery County, are set to announce today a package of legislative proposals that would prohibit state contractors from making independent political expenditures, require shareholder approval before a Maryland-based company pays for campaign material, and bar companies from claiming such expenses as an exemption on their state tax returns.
"The Supreme Court decision raises the public and corporate awareness of this kind of spending and makes the danger greater," said Frosh, an attorney.
Raskin, a constitutional law professor, said lawmakers will do their best to protect Maryland from "the major damage the Supreme Court just inflicted."
A spokesman for Comptroller Peter R. Franchot said Maryland does not have a law preventing companies from deducting political spending as business expenses. But Joseph Shapiro, the spokesman, said the state follows federal law and guidelines that do prohibit those deductions.
The senators' proposals, even if they are approved by the Senate and House of Delegates, would "only tweak around the edges" of the Supreme Court decision, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Democrat. He said it appears states can do little to override the impact.
Miller described the decision as "opening up a can of worms" that could lead to other rulings further empowering corporations and their influence on politics.
He called the Raskin and Frosh proposals "reasonable," and both senators predicted their colleagues would be inclined to agree.
Ryan O'Donnell, director of Common Cause Maryland, a nonpartisan group that tracks the influence of money on politics, said the legislation will "throw up obstacles in the road to limit some of the corporate power that is already there."
Across the country, state governments are sizing up what the Supreme Court ruling might mean on a local level. States such as Colorado and Michigan likely will need to stop enforcing corporate political spending bans or take the laws off the books.
Maryland is less affected, said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance at the Maryland State Board of Elections, as the state "has never barred corporate speech in the political process."
In fact, Maryland does not require companies to disclose their monetary backing of advertisements and other material - something the Supreme Court affirmed is allowable, DeMarinis said.
Frosh said he and Raskin are evaluating adding such a regulation to their legislative package. One possibility, Frosh said, would be to make the president of the company paying for an ad say at the end that he approved the message. Political action committees have to make such disclosures.
The General Assembly likely will take up other campaign reforms this year.
Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's County Democrat, said he will again try to persuade his colleagues to vote for public campaign financing. He is advocating a pilot program that would be voluntary for candidates and funded by a $5 checkoff box on income tax returns.
"Even though more money can now be thrown around in the corporate sector, if we allow candidates, if they choose, to use public financing, maybe we can help make a culture change," Pinsky said. The Supreme Court decision, he believes, will foster "more distrust in government," which he said may heighten interest in his public financing proposal.
Miller, a lawyer who represents Calvert and Prince George's counties, said he also would like to see lawmakers address the issue of judicial campaigns. He said he was troubled that the Supreme Court decision could lead corporations to influence court decisions by pumping huge amounts of money into the campaigns of elected local judges.
That, Miller said, should "shock the conscience of the public."
The Senate president said judicial campaigns may be a good place to test public financing as a pilot program. Wisconsin recently switched to public campaign financing for judges, passing a law called the "impartial justice" act.