By ERICH WAGNER
ANNAPOLIS (March 26, 2009)—A bill establishing voluntary public financing of election campaigns was dealt a major blow on the Senate floor Wednesday when it was sent back to committee after a flurry of amendments muddied the bill.
Despite newfound support from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., D-Calvert, the bill suffered from a series of changes that left senators confused about the bill's impact. The development makes the legislation's passage unlikely, with only weeks remaining in the session.
The original bill would have allowed taxpayers to designate a $5 contribution from their income taxes to a fund for House and Senate candidates who opt for public funding. It would also have used $5 million from the gubernatorial public campaign finance fund, which has not been touched since Republican candidate Ellen Sauerbrey used public financing in the 1994 election.
Sen. Bobby Zirkin, D-Baltimore County, railed against the bill, calling it "unconstitutional" and suggesting that it violates the First Amendment. He also called it "illegal" because he claimed the gubernatorial fund was in trust, and could not be shifted for another purpose.
Sen. Roy Dyson, D-Calvert, defended the fund movement, arguing that its purpose is the same in publicly financing election campaigns.
"Even if we were flush in cash, I'd think this a bad idea," Zirkin said. "But especially now, when people are losing their houses, people can't pay their BGE bills, and yet we're finding money for bumper stickers and lawn signs somewhere in this budget."
Sen. Delores Kelley, D-Baltimore County, echoed Zirkin's sentiment, adding that people who don't want to spend time fundraising can choose not to be politicians.
Pinsky called the argument against the bill a "straw man," pointing out that the plan would not even go into effect until 2011, at the beginning of the 2014 election cycle, and that the impact of the tax check-off would be miniscule.
"It's estimated that between $1 million and a million and a half of the $13 billion budget may go to it, depending on whether people check that box (on their tax return) or not," Pinsky said. "...It's very small."
Zirkin introduced a number of the amendments, including a successful one changing the source of the $5 voluntary contribution from residents' existing tax liability to an amount above their tax liability.
Amendments also changed the bill to prohibit organizations from throwing rallies for prospective candidates where the candidate could get all 350 $5 donations to qualify for public funding, thereby giving the candidate a $100,000 de facto donation. Another closed a loophole allowing citizens to dodge campaign contribution limits by giving to a candidate who opts to use private donations through more than one limited liability corporation.
The bill must now go through the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Matters Committee before returning to the Senate floor for second reading.
After the session, Pinsky called the debate "one amendment too far." He said the number of amendments may have hurt the delicate compromise between the stakeholders involved in drafting the bill.
Although Pinsky said his hopes for the bill to make it through the Senate are not lost, he said it would be up to Miller to try to get it back on the floor.
"It's not too late," Pinsky said. "Given the spirit of the season, resurrection is sort of a clever watch word ... it's going to come back."
Capital News Service contributed to this report.