ANNAPOLIS – Report cards for state systems of campaign finance disclosure are out, and Maryland’s name is on the honor roll.
However, there’s still room for improvement.
The Center for Public Integrity, a non-partisan, non-profit think tank, released rankings for the 50 states based on their elections and ethics agencies’ enforcement of state political party campaign finance reporting.
Maryland tied for 10th with Illinois in the rankings with a score of 80 out of 100, falling behind Oregon, California and Washington, which tied for second, North Carolina, Wisconsin, New York, and Florida and Rhode Island, which tied for eighth. Scores of 80 or higher were considered “satisfactory to excellent” by CPI.
The organization based the rankings on a nationwide survey of state regulations for state political party reporting and filing of campaign finance reports, as well as public access to reports and enforcement.
“It does a disservice to the public when state agencies do not accurately report and make accessible campaign finance activity of state political parties,” said Bill Allison, managing editor of CPI.
“These rankings put state parties, the state agencies that oversee them and the public on notice that people are paying attention to campaign finance in their state,” said Leah Rush, director of state projects at CPI.
The nearby states of Virginia and Delaware tied for 37th with a score of 53, which CPI lists as a failing grade. CPI did not rank Washington, D.C., in the survey.
Maryland scored high in reporting because the state requires political parties to report all contributions and expenditures and mandates great detail in itemizations of donors and recipients. The state also scored points for the State Board of Elections’ enforcement of campaign finance disclosures and for public accessibility to the records.
Maryland was one of 22 states with a searchable database on the elections’ board’s Web site, Rush said.
However, the state scored poorly in how often political parties must report. Parties must file disclosure reports only once during a non-election year, and they are not required to file contribution and expenditure reports shortly before an election.
“If you want to increase the regulation of money in politics, they have the tools to do it right now,” said Sean Dobson, director of the electoral reform program at Progressive Maryland. “With the electronic technology we have, we should all be looking at a way to look at reports in real time.”
To improve, the state should require contributor occupations and employers be listed, Dobson said.
However, the problem may be bigger under the surface.
“It’s like asking on the Titanic if people are efficient. It’s still going down,” said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s County. “It still needs a fundamental overhaul.”
Pinsky, a proponent of public financing of campaigns, said the campaign finance issue will remain problematic until there is a “level playing field” for all citizens.
Even a good ranking does not mean a state agency is safe from problems. For example, in third-ranked Washington state the state Democratic Party failed to report nearly $6 million in contributions in the 2000 election cycle.
“I think we’re doing a pretty good job with the resources we have,” said Ross Goldstein, director of the Candidacy and Campaign Finance Division at the Maryland State Board of Elections. “We could always use more, but I think we’re doing fine.”
“It all comes down to whether or not the laws are enforced,” Rush said. “One thing the survey could not factor in was lack of funding or lack of personnel.”
CPI’s report is an extension of its State Secrets study released in June that examined how state political parties raised $570 million during the 2000 election cycle, with $263 million of that coming from soft money transfers from national party organizations. The process is a legal loophole around federal campaign finance law.
According to the State Secrets project, Maryland political parties received $625,887 during the 2000 election cycle, a relatively low amount. In contrast, North Dakota, which ranked 48th and does not require parties to disclose expenditures, saw $1,656,869 donated to state parties. South Carolina, 47th, had $1,816,008 donated to state parties while Nevada, 50th, brought in more than $10.2 million.
Maryland’s stringent disclosure requirements could be keeping its party contributions low. However, there are other possible factors, Allison said. For example, Maryland is not traditionally a battleground state, and the state’s big race, the gubernatorial contest, occurs between presidential election years.
“I would say the strong regulations in Maryland are a deterrent to national parties from donating in the state,” Allison said. The trend of pumping money into state parties is likely to increase in popularity, Allison said, because the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform bill, which bans federal soft money, goes into effect after this year’s election. – 30 – CNS-9-25-02