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One loophole down, 24 to go

ElectionsExecutive BranchJustice SystemEthics

This afternoon, Gov.Martin O'Malleyplans to sign what may be the most significant step toward increasing transparency in Maryland's system of campaign finance in years: a requirement that those who contribute more than $500 to a single candidate during an election cycle list their occupation and employer. That's a good thing; it will give the public a much better idea of who is backing candidates for office and why. However, the fact that this step only brings Maryland up to some semblance of the standard the federal government has employed since the 1970s, and a majority of other states have long held as well, shows just how far the state has to go if voters are to have confidence that the entire campaign finance system isn't just a means for special interests to buy influence.

The occupation/employer requirement, sponsored by Sen. Bill Ferguson and Dels. Jon Cardin and Michael G. Summers, all Democrats, will make it much easier for voters and watchdog groups to discern whether a particular candidate is getting an undue amount of support from a particular business or industry — say, developers, gambling interests or the liquor lobby. It will also enable research into which industries have the most potential sway in Annapolis. That should help voters make more-informed decisions — and could go a long way in explaining why things happen the way they do in the State House.

The measure passed unanimously in the Senate but was opposed by Republicans in the House of Delegates. The objection to the requirement was that it could lead employers to check up on the political activities of their workers, but this is fanciful; since the state already publishes a campaign finance database on the Internet, including the names and addresses of all those who give to candidates in any amount, that possibility already exists.

The idea for this legislation was included in a report on Maryland's campaign finance system commissioned two years ago by Attorney GeneralDouglas F. Gansler. The governor's signature on this bill means that the state has now acted on precisely one of the 25 recommendations it contained. That leaves the biggest loopholes in Maryland campaign finance law untouched.

One is the limited liability corporation loophole. It allows a donor who controls multiple LLCs to make the legal maximum donation ($4,000 per election cycle per candidate, up to $10,000 total) from each individual company. That has been particularly important to developers, who tend to create new LLCs for each project. Legislation to close that loophole has repeatedly failed, and even a letter from Governor O'Malley last year saying he would support such an effort if it were paired with an increase in the state's overall contribution limits didn't help.

Another quirk of state law that politicians have exploited to great effect in recent years is the electoral slate. Candidates can join together in election slates and transfer unlimited amounts of money to each other. Former Baltimore County Executive James T. Smith Jr.raised eyebrows with the practice in 2006, when he substantially bankrolled the campaign of Scott Shellenberger for state's attorney, but more commonly it has been used by leaders in the legislature to cement loyalty and control their chambers. Senate PresidentThomas V. Mike Miller has been particularly successful in his use of slates to help elect those who in turn help elect him to one of the most powerful posts in state government. Members of a slate need not even be running for an office in a given election cycle to participate, a major loophole targeted by the Gansler report.

Among the other recommendations the attorney general backed that have not been acted on is a suggestion that loans to candidates be reported to the state Board of Elections within 24 hours; that might have been important in the 2006 governor's race, when Mr. O'Malley took a half-million-dollar loan from an attorney just before Election Day. The report called for some regulation of exploratory committees, new media expenditures, limits on contributions by out-of-state political action committees, and regulation of independent expenditures.

In a year that began with the Senate's censure of one of its members and included revelations that companies that do business with the state suddenly became big donors to the Democratic Governors Association after Mr. O'Malley became its chairman, the people of Maryland might have hoped for some stronger action on public ethics. But what they got was this legislation and a watered down requirement that elected officials post some ethics forms online. Voters need to demand something better.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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