ANNAPOLIS – Prominent Republicans are joining Democrats to enact public financing for General Assembly campaigns — a policy that could help the GOP compete with Maryland’s majority party.
House Minority Leader Robert Kittleman, R-Howard, and three other Republican delegates have signed on to the “clean money” bill sponsored by Democratic Leader John Hurson, D-Montgomery, to create a voluntary system of public campaign funding.
Hurson called the bill his top legislative priority for the session, but Republicans are piling on, seeing a way to reverse the numbers that keep them underfunded and in the minority.
“All the big money goes to Democrats,” Kittleman said. “In Maryland, we have almost a one party system . . . We need a strong, viable second party,” he said.
“Republican challengers are often very short on cash and unable to get the large corporate sponsors,” said State Republican Chairman Michael Steele. “Anything, from our party’s view, that levels the playing field is worth looking at.”
Under this bill, candidates would demonstrate community support by raising “seed money” – $3,000 to $5,000 for a House race and $7,000 to $10,000 for a Senate race – in donations of $100 or less.
House candidate spending would be capped at $45,000 per campaign; Senate candidates could spend $90,000. Public financing would take care of 75 percent of those limits. An average Maryland campaign costs $36,000, slightly higher than the national average of $34,000, according to a University of Maryland study.
If candidates eschew public money, they may raise and spend unlimited amounts. And if that privately financed candidate’s totals surpass spending caps, their opponents would get even more money for their race from public coffers – up to twice the original limit.
Public financing would relieve candidates of the constant effort to raise large amounts of money, proponents say, freeing candidates to spend more time with constituents.
“This system can eliminate the money chase we’re all involved in,” Hurson said during Friday’s hearing.
Large private and corporate donors might not be strongly opposed, Hurson also said, because they are tired of being solicited. Many lobbyists had come to him, he said, and privately supported the bill for those reasons.
For Republicans, one key factor is that such a system would eliminate the influence of slates in Maryland. Slates are joint campaign committees where candidates pool their money and redistribute it. The slate member with the least fundraising and most need benefits from the donations of the better-funded members.
In a public system, a candidate could accept money from the slate but it would count toward the 25 percent limit on private funds, just like any other contribution.
Momentum has been building around the country for campaign finance reform because U.S. Sen. John McCain’s, R-Ariz., presidential campaign “sparked independent voters to rally around the issue,” Hurson said.
Arizona played a role in Friday’s hearing. Hurson brought Arizona’s House Minority Whip Leah Landrum and a representative from Maine, Democrat Marilyn Canavan – at the expense of his own campaign funds – to testify. Both states have already implemented similar public financing.
Landrum, a Democrat, said she was one of the first candidates in her state to use the public financing option. In order for her to qualify she had to go door-to-door in her district and collect 200 donations of $5. It made a difference because her constituents felt a part of the process, rather than being shut out by big money, she said.
Arizona enacted public financing by voter referendum after a series of financial scandals rocked the political landscape in that state. Two of Arizona’s last three governors left under the cloud of financial scandal, and a 1990 sting operation resulted in the conviction of eight state legislators for selling votes and influence.
In addition, both McCain and former U.S. Sen. Dennis DeConcini, D-Ariz., were investigated by the Senate Ethics Committee for trying to influence regulation of Lincoln Savings and Loan, which led to the then-largest thrift bailout in U.S. history.
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