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A rare win for good government in Annapolis

ElectionsLaws and LegislationFinanceJustice System

When the General Assembly created a commission to study Maryland's campaign finance laws two years ago it was difficult to tell whether the effort would lead to much. Certainly, the need for reform was there, but even given how Democrats have been decrying the Supreme Court's disastrous Citizens United ruling and the lack of limits on political spending, it wasn't clear how far elected officials in Maryland would go to rein in their own fundraising.

Fortunately, advocates for reform had an ace in the hole: Maryland's current limits on campaign contributions — both to individual candidates and to all campaigns during any four-year election cycle — hadn't been raised in two decades. Raising that barrier (and perhaps even a latent desire for reform within Annapolis) proved to be a powerful incentive.

Little noticed by the general public amid all the clamor of the legislative session's final day last Monday, lawmakers finally hammered out a campaign finance reform bill that advocates say is among the strongest the General Assembly has ever passed. It closes (mostly) some of the most egregious loopholes in the state's campaign finance laws while also laying the possible groundwork for public financing of campaigns.

Among the legislation's most notable accomplishments is the further closing of the "LLC loophole" that gives developers the opportunity to skirt donation limits by funneling money through various limited liability corporations. It also puts new limits on the manner in which money can be transferred among candidates on a slate (including the so-called "Jim Smith rule," named after the former Baltimore County executive, that restricts a slate's members to "active" candidates for office so a former candidate can't use a slate to funnel what amount to personal donations).

Local government will now also have the option of creating a system of public financing for candidates for local office. How such a system would work — how it would be financed, how candidates would qualify for financing and how much campaign money would be made available — would also be up to the county, city or town. The hope is that whatever is devised locally (by Montgomery County, perhaps) might prove a model for state government in the future.

The legislation also increases reporting requirements. Independent expenditures of significance ($10,000 or above) would have to be reported publicly within 48 hours. The state elections board would now also have the authority to take civil action against those who violate the law (currently, violations can only be referred for criminal prosecution).

The trade-offs? Contribution limits to candidates are raised from $4,000 to $6,000 and total campaign contributions from $10,000 to $24,000. In the case of individual limits, that's not far from merely matching the rate of inflation. The bill also allows the creation of party caucuses that would raise money on behalf of House and Senate incumbents — not unlike what already happens under the "slate" moniker.

The legislation is not perfect, of course. The LLC loophole isn't completely closed (it doesn't apply if the controlling entity has less than 80 percent ownership), and the reporting requirements imposed on slates should be stronger. But given the difficulty of winning bipartisan approval for campaign finance reform, the legislation is an impressive accomplishment and a distinct improvement over the status quo.

Kudos to the lawmakers most closely associated with the bill, including Sen. Bill Ferguson (a Democrat) and Dels. Jon Cardin and Ron George (a Democrat and a Republican), the campaign finance commission and Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, whose 2010 report on Maryland's campaign finance laws likely helped spur the legislature into action. This is the second straight year the legislature has embraced reforms, and we hope the pattern will continue.

In the current political landscape — given the Supreme Court's refusal to accept limits on campaign expenditures — it's essential that states find ways to restore integrity to the political process. That can chiefly be accomplished through disclosure and transparency, and Maryland deserves to be at the forefront of that effort.

As Common Cause Maryland recently noted, it's been a good year for good government in Maryland. Surprisingly so, really. That's not to suggest that lawmakers aren't still driven by political self-interest (as the tepid level of support for redistricting reform among Democrats demonstrates), but in a year when they've made progress on campaign finance reform, expanded early voting and strengthened the open meetings law, the outlook could be a lot worse.

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