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Panel urges sweeping campaign finance changes

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A panel established by the General Assembly to recommend changes to Maryland's campaign finance laws is urging lawmakers to adopt sweeping reforms to ensure the public knows where election money is coming from and how it is being use to influence their votes.

In a report to lawmakers, the Commission to Study Campaign Finance Law said the Assembly should close loopholes that have allowed donors to funnel large sums into campaigns with little chance voters will know before Election Day.

As a trade-off, the commission also recommended that the legislature raise Maryland's limits on how much donors can contribute to reflect two decades of inflation.

Lawmakers who sat on the commission said they expect most of the recommendations to be incorporated into legislation the Assembly will take up when it begins its annual 90-day session Jan. 9.

"It is our hope that the General Assembly will find the commission's work valuable. We are confident that the General Assembly is committed to improving our existing campaign finance law," said Bruce L. Marcus, a Greenbelt attorney who chaired the panel.

Marcus said the group took into account recent federal decisions such as the Supreme Court case known as Citizens United, in which the justices ruled that limiting independent spending on elections by corporations and other groups violates the First Amendment. The report urges lawmakers to instead craft legislation ensuring that the source of such spending is disclosed quickly.

Del. Jon Cardin, a Baltimore County Democrat who served on the commission, said he expects to introduce either one comprehensive bill or multiple bills to make its recommendations law.

"The House generally is excited about making significant campaign finance reforms and election law reform," said Cardin.

Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Baltimore Democrat and panel member, said it's unlikely that every recommendation would be adopted next year.

"The likelihood of passage is going to vary depending on the particular proposal," he said.

The report addresses a variety of concerns long raised by campaign finance reform advocates. They include the use of slates to move large sums of money around the state, multiple contributions made through limited liability corporations that let wealthy developers get around existing limits, and a disclosure schedule that leaves the public in the dark during the last weeks of a campaign.

But the panel declined to endorse a significant state commitment to the public financing of campaigns, largely because members could not agree on a way to finance it. It instead urged lawmakers to give counties the option to launch pilot programs.

Among the report's recommendations:

•Raise the current limit on donations by a person or business during a single four-year election cycle. The panel said the current limit of $4,000 to a single campaign and $10,000 overall — in place since 1991— has not kept up with inflation. It recommended new limits of $5,000 to $7,000 per campaign and $25,000 overall.

•Close the loophole that now allows an owner of multiple LLCs to donate the limit through each of the businesses, which some contributors have used to pour hundreds of thousands of dollars into the coffers of political allies. The panel said for election purposes, two or more businesses owned or managed by an individual should be treated as a single business.

•Reform the law governing the use of slates to limit how much can be transferred from one candidate to another. The mechanism has been used in recent years — most effectively by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller — to shift large amounts of money from easy races in Democratic strongholds to more closely contested contests. The panel said the "most obvious option" would be to hold transfers within a slate to the same limit — now $6,000 — that applies to a shift of funds between unrelated campaign committees.

•Allow the State Board of Elections to impose civil penalties for routine or technical violations of state election law without a referral to the state prosecutor.

The prosecutor would continue to handle serious cases such as that of Catonsville developer Stephen W. Whalen Jr., 62, who was charged last week with funneling contributions to three Baltimore County politicians under other people's names.

michael.dresser@baltsun.com

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