Publicly Funded Elections Proposed in Md.

Proposal could eliminate special interest money from campaigns and make the politicians responsive to the people once again. Cost to taxpayers would be recouped many times over by eliminating "favors" to the special interests.

By LIZ FARMER, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS - Special interest groups have too much influence on political campaigns - at least that's the word from those who spoke Thursday in favor of a bill that would establish a public financing system for General Assembly candidates.

"It's a trust issue," said the bill's sponsor Sen. Paul G. Pinksy, D-Prince George's, in a press conference. "For the public to have the confidence in us, then we have to get rid of all the variables, and private money is a variable."

Both the Senate and the House of Delegates are considering a bill, known as the "Clean Elections" bill which would provide public money for state election campaigns if a candidate agrees to stricter spending limits.

If candidates decide to opt into the system, they would have to collect at least $5 from 350 or more registered voters in their districts in order to qualify for public financing. A House of Delegates candidate would then be eligible to receive as much as $80,000 in public funds for the primary and general elections. A Senate candidate could receive as much as $100,000 for the two races.

Candidates running against a privately funded opponent in the general election could receive matching funds up to $200,000 for a Senate race and $160,000 for a House seat.

In testimony before the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, proponents of the legislation said that running a publicly financed campaign allows the candidate to spend more time with voters and less time raising money.

However, the $7.5 million yearly price tag for a public financing system had at least one witness at Thursday's hearing concerned about the cost of the bill.

"To take $7.5 million of public funds and to not put it into schools or something that is more appropriate is wrong," said Joyce E. Thomann, a retired Federal Elections Commission special assistant, and the lone opposition witness to the bill.

Both Sen. Pinksy and Delegate Jon S. Cardin, D-Baltimore County, the bill's sponsor in the House, said that the funds will not be taken from taxpayer dollars but from unclaimed property funds collected by the state.

Thomann, however, warned that state can not afford the costs of a proposed Election Financing Commission, which the legislation would establish to monitor campaigns.

One of the bill's co-sponsors, Sen. Jim Rosapepe, D-Prince George's, estimates that last year some closely contested races for the state senate cost from $300,000 to $500,000.

According to a recent report by Progressive Maryland, a public interest group, campaign spending reached an all-time high in Maryland during the 2006 election cycle. Contributions to state candidates increased by 69 percent from 2002, while less than 3 percent of Marylanders actually gave money to a campaign.

"Our research shows that the money is coming from a very small group of people, and they're writing big checks," said Sean Dobson, acting director of Progressive Maryland and co-author of the report.

A public funding system also encourages candidates who might otherwise not have the funds or manpower to raise money to run for office, the groups said. Maine and Arizona passed similar legislation in the late 1990s and, according to Thursday's testimony, has enjoyed success over the years.

"We have found that women, particularly African-Americans and Latinos who have used this system are especially likely to say that they would not have become candidates were it not for the public financing," said Nick Nyhart, president and C.E.O. of Public Campaign in Washington, D.C. The bill passed the House of Delegates last year, but it died on the Senate floor late in the session. This year, Dobson said that through their lobbying efforts last year and with a month and a half still left to go in the session, he is more confident the legislation will pass.

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