By John O’Connor
ANNAPOLIS – Maryland campaign finance reformers have taken aim at the latest vexing election law: campaign committees that support a slate of candidates and allow virtually unlimited flexibility to transfer funds.
“It’s a hole so big you could drive a truck through it,” said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a public interest group advocating public campaign financing and abolition of all slates.
Slate campaign funds, where two or more candidates form a common campaign treasury, have been attacked for allowing too much leeway in transferring campaign donations. State laws allow candidates to move unlimited amounts of money between funds to which they belong. In addition, slates can be formed, joined or broken at any time.
The reform-minded groups smell victory. They’ve had success nationally in banning soft money – donations to political parties for issue advertising – and now are looking to tune up state regulations.
Maryland’s General Assembly was also busy with campaign finance reform last session. One failed proposal would have required donors giving more than $250 to list their employer, while another failed bill would have required state elected officials to report campaign contributions in January.
A legislative commission is studying the feasibility of publicly financed campaigns in Maryland.
The issue of slates came up this election season after former Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore County, used slate laws to transfer more than $100,000 to two other slate campaigns, even though Bromwell planned to retire from office and was not running for re-election.
Use of slates is increasing, with two prominent Democrats, House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr., D-Allegany, and Delegate Howard Pete Rawlings, D- Baltimore, forming multi-district slate committees earlier this year: the Maryland House Democratic Unity Committee and Future of Baltimore Committee, respectively.
But slates are efficient, streamline campaign management and promote teamwork, supporters of the committees said.
“For decades, people who chose to run together in a district have chosen to form a slate,” said Delegate Maggie L. McIntosh, who formed a slate with three other incumbents in her district. “That is the proper use of a slate and it’s been used forever. There has never been a complaint (about district slates).”
Slates, said McIntosh, D-Baltimore, make it easier for members to pool resources, produce campaign materials and pay bills.
“A slate is a financial arrangement, legal in the state of Maryland,” she said. “Why should the way they pay for their campaign materials with one check or four checks mean anything?”
McIntosh is speaking of district slates, like her former 42nd District Unity Team, which allow candidates within a district to join resources. These slates, said McIntosh, usually use funds to print signs and T-shirts with every candidate’s name.
More problematic are statewide slate funds, such as Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr.’s Maryland Democratic Senatorial Committee, which allows 34 Senate Democratic candidates to pool money. These statewide slate funds cross district and county lines. Maryland caps donations to individual campaigns at $4,000, and individuals may give no more than $10,000 for any four-year election cycle. Up to $6,000 may be transferred between campaign committees – which includes out-of-state campaign funds and political action committees – with no aggregate transfer limit. When transferring cash between a slate committee and a member candidate’s committee, there are no donation limits in Maryland. It’s the special status, and different rules, that slate funds enjoy that has opponents irritated. “It’s ridiculous to have one standard for individual campaigns and donors and another standard for slates,” said Browning. And, he said, “Do donors know what is happening with their money?”
Slates cloud the source and destination of campaign donations because they operate as middlemen between contributor and recipient. If a slate transfers money to an individual campaign, finance reports only list the contributing slate, not the donor who originally provided the money to the slate.
For example, a slate receiving money from a tobacco company could dole it out to an anti-tobacco legislator, but voters looking at campaign finance reports would not easily know the source of the funding.
It’s just like money laundering, said Browning.
To color all use of slate funds as less-than-honest is unfair and irresponsible, said McIntosh.
“That’s ludicrous,” she said. “That’s not the way anybody has been doing anything for years.”
The argument that slate funds are spreading money and influencing races throughout the state is not true, said David Paulson, Maryland Democratic Party spokesman.
“You won’t see it very often,” said Paulson. “You’ll see it in particular cases where there is a very great need, especially at the top of a ticket.”
Slates, he said, “are about getting out the vote.”
Slate proponents also dismiss the argument made by Common Cause and Progressive Maryland, another campaign finance reform group, that slates protect incumbents.
“My God that can’t be true, because more than half the people on the (House Democratic Unity Team) slate are not incumbents,” said Taylor. However, the slates that prompt the most criticism support Democrats, the party that dominates Maryland politics. The Democratic Party holds 34 of 47 Senate districts and 106 of 141 Delegate seats. Common Cause argues that slates only perpetuate the party’s majority.