ANNAPOLIS – The drive for public financing of political campaigns in Maryland took a step forward Tuesday, when the House of Delegates passed a bill that would pay for General Assembly campaigns with public funds.
But the measure still must pass the Senate and faces the prospect of a veto from Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich, whose spokesman said the bill “doesn’t have a very bright future.”
Henry P. Fawell, the spokesman, said that although Ehrlich would wait to see the final version of the bill before deciding on a veto, “he’s never supported that. It’s basically incumbent protection.”
Even if it were to pass the Senate, the public financing bill could not survive a veto, as it is too late in the session for the General Assembly to complete an override.
“We have to make sure that we are not beholden to special interests,” the bill’s sponsor, Delegate Jon S. Cardin, D – Baltimore County, said on the House floor. “We have a public perception problem. It starts in Washington, but it has come to Maryland.”
The bill, which was approved in a 79-56 vote, would grant up to $100,000 in public funds to qualified Senate candidates and up to $80,000 to qualified House candidates.
Opponents of the bill said it would do little to clean up the fundraising process.
“This bill is like a piece of swiss cheese . . . it has so many holes in it,” said Delegate Herbert H. McMillan, R – Anne Arundel. He said that because soft money would still be allowed to go to the parties, they would be able to “just jerk their candidates around to toe that party line. No thanks, I value my independence.”
In order to receive the money, candidates would have to collect contributions of at least $5 each from around 400 people, depending on the size of a district’s population. Candidates would also have to raise $15,000 in contributions to qualify for public funds.
Candidates in uncontested races would not receive more than $16,000 in public funds.
House Minority Whip Anthony J. O’Donnell, R – Calvert, noted that while the legislation would limit the contributions special interests could make to candidates, it would still allow such groups to campaign independently.
“If you think this takes them out of the game, you’re fooling yourself,” O’Donnell said.
Del. Sheila E. Hixson, D – Montgomery, acknowledged that the legislation was not a comprehensive solution but said it would open the General Assembly up to more candidates.
“This is one step, just one step. It’s not the whole answer, we all know that,” Hixson said. “We are asking you to give everyone a chance, and [enable] people who don’t have access to any kind of money to have a shot at running for political office.”
Most of the money for the program would come from state revenue from abandoned property, which totaled over $150 million in 2005. Each year, $7.5 million would be deducted from this source to pay for the campaign financing program.
McMillan said the money could be put to better use. “I don’t think that most of the people of this state would fund candidates before they fund programs for kids or veterans or firefighters,” McMillan said.