Campaign reform: some talk, little action State legislators divided on the need for changes


State lawmakers, who turned their backs on two out of thre bills intended to reform campaign financing in Maryland, have one more chance to act before they face the voters in 1994.

The proposals, which died in the House Judiciary Committee, would have speeded up and clarified the reporting of contributions.

The two legislators pushing reform measures seen by some as essential to increasing the attention that Maryland voters pay to many political campaigns -- Dels. Gilbert J. Genn and Dana Lee Dembrow, both Montgomery County Democrats -- say they will try again in the next General Assembly.

Mr. Dembrow is hopeful. Mr. Genn is not, saying it is unlikely the legislature will tinker with campaign war chests in an election year.

Even George A. Nilson, a lawyer with Piper & Marbury in Baltimore who led the state's effort to examine its campaign laws, is skeptical, basing his assessment on the lengthy, harsh debate that preceded the one measure that passed in the recent session.

The innocuous bill will require candidates to file campaign finance reports with their local election boards, not just with the state board in Annapolis.

"It doesn't sound like a body moving toward election reform breakthrough," Mr. Nilson said.

Mr. Nilson chaired an election laws commission under former Gov. Harry Hughes that made 50 reform recommendations to the legislature in 1987. It was not until four years later that the legislature approved about a dozen of those proposals.

Mr. Nilson said that most of the other recommendations, such as capping political action committee donations at 30 percent of the total contributions, fell by the wayside.

"I think it's incumbents watching out for incumbents," he said. "Legislators take an extraordinary interest in any change in the campaign finance laws."

One of the two reform bills killed this year would have required disclosure of the occupation and employer of those giving $250 and above. Currently, all contributors, regardless of how much they donate, have to list only a name and address.

The intent was to determine whether particular groups -- such as doctors or a company's employees -- are bankrolling a campaign.

The other defeated bill would have required that donors report within 24 hours any contributions above $2,000 within the last two weeks of a campaign.

Under Maryland law, candidates are required to file a report 11 days before the general election and another three weeks after the election. But if special interests have bought an election, "it's too late. The outcome is not reversed," said Mr. Dembrow, the bill's sponsor.

Mr. Genn sponsored the ill-fated measure requiring the occupation and employer of those contributing more than $250. He recalls a fellow committee member telling him why he would vote against it: "I don't want to do my opponent's opposition research."

"People who are incumbents want to hold on to that power," said an exasperated Mr. Genn. "As far as campaign finance reform, I've never been satisfied with our laws."

Maryland is in the middle of the pack when it comes to state campaign finance laws, said Phil Andrews, executive director of Common Cause of Maryland. Common Cause argues that reform laws can open the election process and give challengers a chance against well-financed incumbents.

"We're not at the top, but we're not at the bottom," Mr. Andrews said. "We have a long way to go to make disclosure meaningful."

Those who want information about the money behind the candidates are also hampered by Maryland's delay in computerizing records.

Financial reports of the hundreds of lawmakers and challengers are available only in file folders, making any analysis of the data difficult, if not impossible.

By computerizing the information, one could quickly determine which candidate spent the most or the least, which candidates picked up the most from political action committees and who transferred money to other candidates.

"That data's not in there. It takes a lot of staff and a lot of time," said Rebecca M. Wicklund, director of campaign finance with the State Administrative Board of Election Laws. "Budget constraints have made it very difficult to proceed."

Meanwhile, the state election board has devoted its time to computerizing its election ballots and candidate lists, Ms. Wicklund said, and hopes to add candidates' financial records in about two years.

The election board's budget has been heading steadily downhill. In 1990, it was $1.4 million. Next year, it will be $400,000 less.

Some believe that Maryland's low voter turnout -- 53.4 percent of those eligible voted in the 1992 election -- can be blamed on the state's lack of progressive campaign laws.

The Institute for Southern Studies, a nonprofit research group based in North Carolina, ranked Maryland 36th among the 50 states and below the national average of 55 percent, based on its 1992 turnout. The institute earlier this year listed Maryland among its "Dismal Dozen."

"More people in these states feel that their voices don't count," said Bob Hall, author of the study. "Americans are cynical about political leaders and the corrupting influence of campaign money, and they show their distrust by boycotting the ballot box."

By contrast, Maine, which has some of the strongest election and campaign finance laws in the nation, had the highest voter turnout: 72 percent in 1992.

But state Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., a Prince George's Democrat, said he found the study hard to believe and defended the state's record on campaign finance reform.

"I was under the impression that Maryland was doing quite well," Mr. Miller said. "In the past several years, I think we've been very progressive."

He noted that in 1991 he and House Speaker R. Clayton Mitchell Jr., D-Kent, pushed through recommendations from the Nilson Commission, including limits on PAC contributions and a ban on lobbyist involvement in campaigns.

PACs were once able to contribute an unlimited amount to a candidate, but under the reform passed, they are limited to an aggregate of $6,000 per four-year election cycle for each candidate. Lobbyists can no longer solicit or transfer funds to a member or candidate for the General Assembly.

Another measure boosted the amount an individual can contribute to a candidate from $2,000 to $4,000 an an effort to curb dependence on special interests.

Mr. Dembrow, a persistent campaign reform advocate, termed the measures "revolutionary."

"That was a very dramatic change," he said, although he still urges additional reforms suggested by the Nilson Commission.

Mr. Nilson wonders whether there is sentiment among legislators for more reform. "The legislature sort of patted itself on the back and said, 'We can forget about it for awhile,' " he said.

Indeed, some lawmakers question whether new reforms are needed, such as the commission's recommendation to limit PAC donations to 30 percent of total campaign receipts.

Four states curb PAC contributions, and there is a move on Capitol Hill to do the same.

A 1990 report by Common Cause of Maryland stated that 12 of the 47 senators received more than 30 percent of their total contributions from PACs, along with 49 of the 141 delegates.

Del. Clarence Davis picked up 83 percent of his $18,319 in campaign donations from special interests, one of the highest percentages among legislators in the 1990 election.

The Baltimore Democrat explained that he represents a poor district and must rely on PAC contributions to pay for the ever-increasing costs of campaigning.

Mr. Davis sees no need for PAC limits. "It's better just taking your campaign money where you can get it and report it. Common Cause and the Sunpapers can publish it if they want to," he said.

If limits are placed on PACs, special interests will find another way to contribute, he predicted.

"I think what we have right now is close to full disclosure," said Del. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Baltimore County Republican who voted against the two reform measures killed this year. "It's not a hot issue out there, and we don't perceive it as a serious problem."

Deborah Povich, associate director of Common Cause of Maryland, said, "There's a real reluctance to change any existing laws." Reform measures have a chance, she said, only with the strong backing of legislative leaders.

"Maybe it's a subject we should revisit," said Mr. Miller, the Senate president.


Actions used in other states -- but not Maryland -- to improve disclosure of contributions and the fairness of elections include:

* 23 states require that contributions ranging from $100 to more than $2,000 made to candidates during the two weeks before an election be immediately disclosed.

* 13 states require contributors donating more than $100 to list their occupations.

* 21 states require the same information for those who donate more than $1,000.

* 18 states prohibit corporate donations to candidates.

* 8 states bar union contributions to candidates.

* 18 states have begun computerizing candidate financial records, a tool for keeping track of which lawmakers received and spent the most.

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