Time to deregulate Maryland campaign contributions


THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY could do itself a big favor by taking the state of Maryland out of the business of regulating campaign contributions.

Instead of further complicating the matter and confounding the public, the legislature should repeal all existing campaign contribution laws except reporting and let the marketplace take care of itself.

There are really two major money problems in Annapolis -- too much on the one hand, not enough on the other. While the state budget is as taut as a drum and the Schaefer administration is asking for a smorgasbord of tax increases, it's still private war chests that determine public policy.

Democracy in action doesn't come cheap. Maryland's 250 political action committees pumped $3 million into the campaigns of General Assembly candidates. Incumbents scooped up $2.4 million of the boodle.

Now, Senate President Thomas V. "Mike" Miller, D-Prince George's, and House Speaker Clayton Mitchell, D-Kent, want to shut down the pipeline that flows between lobbyists with big money and members of the legislature. Interestingly, Miller was one of the PAC high-rollers, with more than $100,000 in contributions last year.

Lobbyists already have chosen sides. Annapolis' million-dollar man, Bruce Bereano, who represents upwards of 65 clients and has established his own PAC, is resisting the changes. Alan Rifkin, Governor Schaefer's former legislative officer, says he supports them.

One of the most significant campaign reforms occurred in Maryland in the early '70s when the General Assembly legalized campaign contributions from business -- getting money out from under the table and putting it on top.

Before that, labor could and did contribute obscene amounts of money and services through its committees on political education (COPE), but illegal contributions from business usually came in weekly installments from the petty cash drawer.

As it now stands, a tight little circle of lobbyists and captains of industry controls the bulk of campaign contributions because its members control the process and understand the laws.

In the bad old days, a ticket to a fundraiser for a delegate or state senator fetched $25, $50 max. Now those lovable galoots are charging $250 a dip, as much -- or even more than -- a governor, U.S. senator or member of Congress.

All of which is to say that when President Reagan deregulated the United States, the real purchase price of public officials shifted from Washington to the state capitals along with regulatory authority. These days, Annapolis is where the action is -- where the brazenness is, too.

Lobbyists happily bear the tariff. Most of the bunkies and double-knitters who show up at local fundraisers turn in complementary tickets, unaware that they were probably paid for by polluters and slumlords.

Average Marylanders no longer participate in campaign funding because they're no longer needed. What's more, they no longer can afford to. The law sometimes makes fools of those who try.

Only a few years ago, such an eminence as James Rouse was incriminated and embarrassed because he was unfamiliar with the laws and contributed beyond the limit. The impresario of the million-dollar fundraiser, the late Irv Kovens, was once listed as // having contributed more than the law allows. And Kovens was no naif about campaign money.

A couple of years ago, the special prosecutor's office investigated the campaign spending reports of 10 ranking officeholders, including the attorney general, because a well-intentioned citizen contributed more than the $2,500 aggregate that he was legally permitted. And former Del. Nathaniel Oaks was convicted of double-dipping because he had too much money available in his campaign kitty.

The laws of physics are the laws of politics: Every action produces an equal reaction. So for every new law that is enacted, ingenuity and creativity will find ways around it. Campaign spending laws are honored only in the breach.

Now that PACs have developed their own pernicious brand of eccentricities, there is, would you believe, still another attempt to inhibit their presence instead of removing all restrictions. With PACs, the sky's the limit, which is to say there are no limits on PAC contributions at all. Many businesses have PACs, to which employees are encouraged to contribute and executives are virtually required to support. In many instances, companies give bonuses to executives which are automatically detoured to the corporate PAC.

A lobbyist in Annapolis who has 65 clients controls 65 separate PACs, thus multiplying his firepower as well as his buying power in the legislature many times over. An entrepreneur who owns, say, 25 different corporations can make 25 separate $1,000 contributions on 25 different corporate checks to a single candidate, a thoroughly legal end-run around the $1,000 contribution limit.

Another way of winking at contribution laws is the non-political fundraiser, just one more way of buying into the political process by circumventing the legal limits.

Friends of Schaefer, for example, have raised millions in his name for his pet projects, most visibly for redecorating the Governor's Mansion and installing a fountain on its lawn. Yet there is no accounting of the money, no record of how it is spent. Ditto the direct donation of objets d'art.

Then there are "continuing committees," money from which can be used for any purpose that can be vaguely construed as politics: a new car for campaigning; dinner for two; maintaining a year-round campaign staff; electing friendly legislators, and, in one instance, even a case of light bulbs. The process further removes lawmakers from the people they represent and makes them totally reliant on a small circle of lobbyists and professional fundraisers.

A corollary to this is the transfer of funds from one candidate to another. This sleight-of-hand allows a governor with a treasure chest of, say, $3 million to invest heavily in General Assembly candidates who'll remember the gesture when they're voting on administration legislation. Mayor Schmoke made such investments in last year's state elections. Presumably, he'll repeat the gesture this year in an effort to elect a cooperative City Council.

All of which says the public is turned off by talk of big-money campaigns, and the General Assembly, in its efforts to tighten restrictions, is merely calling attention to the problem and inviting even more opportunity for abuse.

Doing away with the thicket of laws is a better solution to the problem of big money than adding another layer of regulations. It's time to put politics back into politics.

Frank A. DeFilippo writes regularly on Maryland politics.

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