ANNAPOLIS – Maryland campaign finance reformers are hoping attention surrounding the bankrupt Enron corporation and investigations into its ties to the Bush and Clinton administrations will boost efforts to strengthen state contribution laws.
“Public awareness of money in politics is at an all-time high in the wake of Enron’s collapse,” said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause.
Last week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed legislation to finally ban unregulated soft money contributions to political parties – something advocates attribute to the attention paid to Enron contributors. They hope the same pressure will bolster their proposals.
There hasn’t been such a bright light shining on campaign finance reform since the Watergate scandal, said Delegate Elizabeth Bobo, D- Howard, sponsor of a bill to require those who donate more than $250 to disclose their occupation and employer — the same requirements federal contributors face.
Bobo’s bill is one of many to address the issue. Other bills this session would speed up reporting deadlines and study public financing of campaigns.
Similar bills were filed in previous years, but all met their demise in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee where they have either been voted down or buried.
Sen. Michael Collins, D-Baltimore County, a committee member, said the disclosure bills are unnecessary.
The bills, he said, don’t “contribute anything meaningful to public disclosure.”
The extra work involved would be burdensome to volunteer treasurers who keep such books, Collins said.
Bobo’s bill would require treasurers to make at least one good faith effort to track down employer and occupation information when it is not immediately disclosed.
Collins said he has had treasurers quit in the past over reporting burdens.
But Sen. Jean Roesser, R-Montgomery, said the extra work wasn’t that onerous.
“I hear more excuses from legislators about their treasurers than from treasurers themselves,” she said.
Roesser and Collins have both filed bills to address a donation reporting lag. Current law requires an annual contribution report in November. That timeline means the public is ignorant of those who contribute heavily right before the start of the January to April legislative until 11 months after the session’s start.
Collins’ bill would simply change the annual reporting deadline from November to January. Roesser’s bill would leave the November deadline and require an additional report if more than $5,000 is collected between November and the session start.
Collins said he didn’t think his bill was really necessary but offered it as the least burdensome way to address the complaint made by reform advocates.
Reform advocates and academics think differently.
“These types of sunshine laws are critical to fair and honest campaign financing,” said Paul Herrnson, director of the Center for American Politics and Citizenship at the University of Maryland.
The public can get an idea of who is donating, hold officials accountable, and help identify the candidates’ issues, he said.
Herrnson recently worked with advocacy groups to fill in holes left by current disclosure laws. They compiled a database linking individual donors to their businesses and occupations.
His study of the data found that business interests contributed the most money to Maryland politics and that the motivation driving donations was to gain access to legislators who can influence the policy-making process.
For example, he said, although business ideology typically aligns with Republican thinking, businesses made 79 percent of their House contributions and 73 percent of their Senate contributions to Democrats, the dominant party in Maryland. And about 50 percent of that money went to legislative leaders.
The patterns produce certain types of legislation, said Sean Dobson of Progressive Maryland.
Dobson, whose advocacy group contributed to the database project, said they pored over more than 147,000 contributors to construct the database from scratch. Disclosure laws, he said, would have made the task easier.
The bills were heard in the House Wednesday and in the Senate Thursday. There was no opposition.
The lack of opponents, Bobo said, was due to the fact that incumbents were the ones most likely to be affected by the laws.