A Maryland Senate committee's vote to weaken a campaign finance bill is raising questions about how far the General Assembly will go this year to restrict the influence of political action committees.
By a vote of 8-3, the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee yesterday returned to $8,000 the proposed cap on the amount a PAC can give to a candidate during a four-year election cycle. The committee action was on a bill that had been passed by the House of Delegates. The $8,000 limit had been set in the original version of the bill, but the House last month had lowered it to $4,000.
Late last month, the same Senate committee voted 6-5 to support the lower limit on PAC gifts.
This time, three senators switched their votes -- Paula C. Hollinger, D-Balto. Co., Arthur Dorman, D-Prince George's, and Larry E. Haines, R-Carroll. They apparently had been under pressure from Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., who objected to the lower PAC limits.
Miller, D-Prince George's, called for the second committee vote, insisting that he wanted the original $8,000 limit to avoid a protracted fight on the Senate floor.
"I want a bill that passes," Miller said. "That's the bill I support. It's got my name on it."
But advocates of tighter restrictions on PACs, who had lobbied the House to lower the PAC limit, were upset by the committee action.
"We're very disappointed," said Phil Andrews, executive director Maryland Common Cause, a citizens' lobbying group. "They're voting for cosmetic campaign reform rather than real campaign reform."
Andrews was more pleased with another amendment passed by the committee that lowered the limit on individual campaign contributions from $5,000 to $4,000. The current limit is $2,000.
Yesterday's vote means that the bill should come before the entire Senate this week. If the Senate approves the $8,000 limit, the measure will be returned to the House, where the higher cap is likely to run into opposition.
The cap was lowered in a House committee after a majority of delegates signed a letter to the committee recommending the lower limit.
If the House rejects the Senate version -- as some State House observers predict it will -- then details of the bill will be decided by a special conference committee.
Onlookers say that with the PAC cap back to $8,000, the bill could be derailed or killed outright on either the House or Senate floor or watered down by the conference committee.
Andrews said his group may be willing to accept a compromise of a $6,000 PAC contribution limit, but called the figure "very high."
"We saw $8,000 as a starting point and not a finishing point," he said.
Hollinger, one of the three Senate committee members who switched her vote on the limit, said she agreed to the $8,000 cap because without it, the session may end without any limit on PAC contributions.