ANNAPOLIS – A Senate panel Thursday examined campaign financing against the backdrop of a General Assembly grappling with slot machines and a study that linked gaming and $500,000 in election donations.
Two Montgomery County Democrats took the lead in pleading significant changes to the state’s campaign finance laws and one Prince George’s County Democrat continued his annual drive to expose more information about campaign contributors.
Sen. Ida Ruben, D-Montgomery, whisked through a presentation of her bill, SB 214, to raise the ceiling on total contributions from a single donor from $10,000 to $20,000.
“The reason Maryland has so much soft money is because our ceiling for contributions is so low,” said Ruben, as she belabored the increasing costs of campaigning to the committee, which asked few questions.
Sen. Brian Frosh, D-Montgomery, pushed legislation that would similarly cut back on soft money and donations.
His bill, SB 132, would fix the 1991 bill that introduced campaign funding limits in Maryland by closing the loophole allowing different companies with identical ownership to contribute as separate entities.
“This bill cleans up the loose ends,” Frosh said.
Frosh cited a study by Common Cause Maryland, which tied more than $150,000 in contributions to race track owner William Rickman, made through a network of subsidiaries.
The study tracked campaign contributions from proponents of legalized slot machines in Maryland, a central issue in Annapolis this session.
Common Cause tied about $150,000 in gaming contributions to Gov. Robert Ehrlich, who balanced his budget on slots revenue.
“Is a bill rising or sinking on the basis of its merits or is it rising or sinking on the basis of contributions?” asked James Browning, executive director of Common Cause.
The sparse crowd was weighted with campaign finance reformers.
Absent were lobbyists, who typically represent top contributors. However, well-known tobacco lobbyist Bruce Bereano poked his head in briefly, but slipped out to a hearing on a smoking ban.
Longtime campaign finance reform advocate, Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George’s, pleaded the case for increased disclosure.
Pinsky’s SB 259 would require contributors who donate more than $250 to a campaign to note their employer. The bill has died in committee every time it was introduced over the last 10 years.
The committee remained skeptical this year, even though one of the bill’s previous opponents, former Sen. Clarence Blount, D-Baltimore, is no longer chairman.
Most senators pleaded the case for their treasurers who would have to deal with the added load of reporting contributor employers to the State Board of Elections. Federal laws already require the names of employers from anyone who donates more than $200 to a campaign.
“I know what you’re trying to accomplish,” said Sen. Sandra Schrader, D- Anne Arundel. “I can see this to be a real nightmare.”
Pinsky dismissed their concerns.
“The big checks are coming from a very small number of people,” Pinsky said. “The disparity is very stark.”