ANNAPOLIS Public financing of General Assembly campaigns would curb conflicts of interest and open up elections to those with smaller incomes, the lead sponsor of such legislation told the House Commerce and Government Matters committee last week.
The bill could be voted on as early as this Thursday.
The Clean Campaign Public Financing Act, sponsored by House Majority Leader John Adams Hurson, D-Montgomery, would enable more than the wealthy to participate in political campaigns. Hurson also said the legislation could prevent the conflicts of interest that occur when a legislator is called upon to vote on an issue favored by a major contributor.
“Public financing is not new to the United States,” Hurson said. “I think it’s important to provide public financing for those people who are…frightened by the aspect of raising huge sums of money.”
Hurson said the General Assembly can’t continue to look at reforming ethics legislation unless it looks at the issue of clean campaign financing.
“We will not even allow someone to buy us a cup of coffee as a lobbyist, but that same person (lobbyist) can turn around and donate $4,000 to your campaign,” he said. “If you don’t look at this issue, it’s foolish to go through with ethics legislation. It’s a joke and it’s fooling the public.”
Under the bill, House races would be capped at $60,000 per candidate and Senate races would be limited to $100,000 beginning Jan. 1, 2000. The state Board of Elections would distribute campaign funds to those candidates meeting certain eligibility requirements. Candidates would have to raise $4,000 for House seats and $8,000 for Senate seats from private sources to trigger the public financing. Contributions must be less than $100 each from at least 330 people in the candidate’s district.
Once a candidate is eligible, the Board of Elections would fund 75 percent of expenditure limits and the candidate could raise the remaining 25 percent in individual donations of no more than $100 per contributor.
If one candidate in a race exceeds the spending limit, or declines public financing, his or her opponent may apply for funds up to twice the original amount received.
The bill says no more than 60 percent of these limits can be spent in the primaries, and no more than 40 percent can be spent in the general election.
But some lawmakers say the 60-40 cap will put many candidates at a disadvantage while campaigning.
“In a competitive, bipartisan race in some districts, that would really put the challenger in a bad situation,” Delegate Christopher Shank, R-Washington, told the committee last week. “I would have a problem with that.”
“I don’t like to ask the taxpayers to support electioneering,” said Shank, whose 1998 opponent outspent him by a margin of about eight to one, he said. “My main opposition is more the fiscal impact. If you want to do a tax write off, that’s fine. But the past performance of that fund (in gubernatorial races) indicates there’s not enough support.”
Since 1974, Maryland gubernatorial campaigns have been funded by a tax check off system, allowing taxpayers to designate $1 of their taxes for the campaign fund.
Of the estimated $2.5 million raised for last year’s gubernatorial campaign, about $90,000 came from 11,000 tax returns, said Glendening spokesman Don Vandrey.
The bill would establish a similar tax check off system. But funding for public financing will also come from general fund revenues to be earmarked in the annual budget.
Supporters say this may be the only way to keep campaign costs down and political participation up.
“We cannot survive as a participatory democracy by citizen legislatures if it becomes dominated by money and only those with the most money can run,” said Kathleen Skullney, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland.
Skullney said even a politically conservative state like Arizona passed a similar bill last November. Proposition 200 was passed by voter ballots and was viewed as a non-partisan approach to clean campaign laws. The Clean Elections Institute is in the process of implementing the bill.
“This is a very trendy bill,” Skullney said. “It’s the `in’ approach to dealing with the overwhelming cost of big campaigns.”
Skullney said the act would cost about $31.6 million over a four-year cycle, or $7.9 million annually, to fund all potential candidates. In anticipation that this year’s budget will be more than last year’s $17 billion, Skullney said the fund cost of less than .05 percent of the annual budget is a “small price to pay for a clean election.”