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Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group, unveiled today a newspaper advertising campaign designed to prod lawmakers into passing a bill that would allow public financing of General Assembly election campaigns.

"The bill for ignoring campaign finance reform just arrived," the ad reads. "It's from BG&E."

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At a rally in Annapolis, Ryan O'Donnell, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said a recent analysis of campaign finance records showed that 93 percent of political contributions from the electricity industry went to lawmakers who voted to deregulate the the utilities in 1999.

It's "maybe not a quid pro quo," O'Donnell said, but there's a "very terrible appearance of undue influence in Annapolis."

Sean Dobson, executive director of Progressive Maryland, said the General Assembly should pass a bill that would "create a voluntary campaign finance option, so you can run without taking one nickel from BG&E ... or any other interest that has too many influences down here in Annapolis."

Committees in the House of Delegates and the Senate have both debated campaign finance reform legislation this year, but the bill supported by the advocacy groups has not yet come up for a vote. A similar bill passed the House last year but was defeated by one vote in the Senate.

"The hour is getting late and it's time for that vote now," Dobson said yesterday.

Opponents of the measure say that given the financial uncertainty the state faces, now is not the time to dedicate millions of taxpayer dollars to pay for political campaigns. The system would cost the state's general fund about $9 million a year, according to a legislative analysis.

Sponsored by Del. Jon Cardin and Sen. Paul Pinsky, both Democrats, the bill would establish a voluntary system under which candidates could qualify for funding by getting contributions of $5 or more from several hundred donors. Senate candidates would get $50,000 for contested primary and general election races. House candidates would get $40,000. The legislation would establish a $7.5 million-a-year fund that would be administered by an "election financing commission."

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, where the bill was heard, said in February that she supported the measure, but Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, a Calvert County Democrat, was opposed.

Under Maryland law, gubernatorial candidates can receive public funding, though nearly all have preferred to raise money from private sources in recent decades. Full public funding of of statewide offices exists in Maine and Arizona. In Maine, about 80 percent of candidates opted into the system in 2006, and about 60 percent of candidates did in Arizona, according to the Department of Legislative Services. Several other states, such as Minnesota and New Jersey, have partial public funding systems. S

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