Bills Would Create Public Financing of Legislative Campaigns

By KELLY WILSON, Capital News Service

ANNAPOLIS (March 11, 2008) - In an attempt to limit the influence of money in state politics, legislation before the Maryland General Assembly would give candidates the option of running publically financed campaigns.

Modeled after similar laws in Maine and Arizona, the Public Campaign Financing Act is intended to limit the effect of lobbyists and wealthy interests on candidates' campaigns.

The law would bring "ordinary people" who are not able to donate large sums of money back into the political process, said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of the advocacy group Public Campaign.

The bills are sponsored in the House and Senate by Delegate Jon Cardin, D-Baltimore County, and Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's, respectively. In 2006, their legislation passed in the House but fell one vote short in the Senate.

Candidates would not be forced to enter the public financing system and could instead raise money the old fashioned way.

Supporters referred to an October 2007 poll by Gonzales Research & Marketing Strategies showing 72 percent of Marylanders favor the legislation, which received little opposition in hearings this week.

Funding for the plan would come mostly from the sale of abandoned property. The plan is expected to cost at least $7.5 million each year.

Residents would also have the option of an income tax "checkoff", which would send $5 of their taxes to the Public Election Fund.

The amount of money given to candidates would be higher for Senate races than for House races and higher for contested races than for uncontested races. In uncontested races more money would be given to candidates during the primary than during the general election.

For example, a candidate for a contested Senate seat would receive $50,000 for the primary and another $50,000 for the general election. If the seat were uncontested the candidate would get $10,000 for the primary and $6,000 for the general election.

The National Institute on Money in State Politics reports that, on average, each Senate candidate in Maryland raised $92,114 and each candidate for the House of Delegates raised $39,623 in the 2006 election.

To be eligible for the funding candidates would be required to gather donations of at least $5 from about 350 constituents, plus another $6,750 under existing fundraising rules.

Sean Dobson, executive director of the advocacy group Progressive Maryland, said this system would provide a "double hurdle" and keep all but serious candidates from receiving public funding.

Pinsky said any resistance to the bills is likely due to some legislators' wariness of change.

"Raising money has been part of their lives," he said, and it may be difficult for some to let go of the old habit.

In the end, Pinsky said, politicians should overcome their fears and pass the bills because the current system puts potential candidates with poorer constituents and fewer connections at a disadvantage.

"It is an issue of fairness," he said.

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