Public financing at last, but who'll take it?


THERE'S a $3 million jackpot in Maryland's treasury waiting to be tapped, but only candidates for governor need apply.

For the first time since the tax checkoff for public financing of political campaigns was authorized in the post-Watergate reform frenzy, the state will hand out money to gubernatorial candidates and their running mates for lieutenant governor who agree to legally imposed spending limits.

The money has been held in escrow, gathering interest for more than 20 years because succeeding General Assemblys couldn't agree on how to allocate the funds. But the outgoing assembly finally decided that the fund should be used once and for all in 1994.

Because the legislature failed to agree on how to use the money, the checkoff was discontinued 10 years ago, and an effort to reinstate it was killed this year. And to be sure, Gov. William Donald Schaefer wasn't about to support releasing the money to candidates who might have run against him while he was in office.

During the 10 years the tax checkoff was in effect, the taxpaying public displayed a remarkable lack of interest in public financing despite the drumbeat of criticism about PAC funding and fat-cat contributors. Only $884,000 was designated for the fund by taxpayers. The remaining $2.2 million is the accumulated interest.

Yet there's an ironic smack to the introduction of public financing in Maryland this year. The cost of campaigning more than doubled while the fund was accumulating. The law was enacted in the early 1970s at a time when a campaign for governor cost about $1 million. For example, Gov. Marvin Mandel spent $1.2 million in his 1970 campaign and $1.5 million in 1974.

By contrast, Mr. Schaefer's 1990 campaign raised and spent more than $3 million -- as much as has been accumulated over more than 20 years of $1 checkoffs by Maryland taxpayers and interest payments by banks.

This year there are presumably 10 candidates for governor -- seven Democrats and three Republicans. Each of the major candidates in both parties has talked of raising and spending as much as $3.5 million to cover the primary and general election.

The top fundraisers so far are two Democrats -- Prince George's County Executive Parris Glendening with some $1.5 million and Lt. Gov. Melvin Steinberg with more than $1 million. Mr. Steinberg is a millionaire, as is another Democrat, Stewart Bainum Jr., a wealthy Montgomery County businessman who is scheduled to announce his candidacy on Monday. He's said he will spend $3 million of his own money if necessary to win the governorship. Republican Helen Delich Bentley has told her fundraisers that she expects them to raise $3.5 million by June.

To qualify for matching public funds, candidates for governor must raise seed money of $144,000 in individual contributions of $250 or less by the July 5 filing deadline. In a recent clarification, the attorney general ruled that in the case of larger contributions, the first $250 can be applied to the seed money pool.

And candidates who apply for public funds must agree to limit campaign spending to no more than $956,000 each in the primary and general elections.

By far the bulk of the money spent in sophisticated modern campaigns is on media -- television, radio and, to a lesser degree, print. Yet by comparison to many other states, campaigning in Maryland is less complicated and therefore, theoretically, less costly.

Maryland, for example, has two major media markets, Baltimore and Washington. Pennsylvania, by comparison, is made up of five sprawling regions with many overlapping media markets.

The major complaint about this year's public financing program is the amount of money being allocated: Just under a million dollars in spending money isn't nearly enough to level the campaign battlefield.

Maryland was one of the first states to follow the federal government's enactment of public financing of political campaigns. The law was a chain reaction to the Watergate disclosure that Richard M. Nixon's campaign had a secret slush fund of millions of dollars, the so-called "townhouse money."

It was disclosed at the time that about $180,000 from Mr. Nixon's campaign fund was channeled into Maryland in 1970 to help Republican J. Glenn Beall Jr. eject Democrat Joseph D. Tydings from the U.S. Senate.

Another early Maryland campaign reform was a 1972 law that allowed businesses to contribute to political campaigns, thus ending the long-time business practice of contributing illegal payments in small weekly installments through petty cash funds. Until the change was made, only labor unions could contribute in cash through "political education" committees.

But public financing reform brought with it a new menace. Instead of sanitizing the campaign fundraising process, the new jTC law created political action committees which have dominated campaign financing ever since.

The question remaining about the one-time grant is this: Which candidates will be silly enough to run a campaign on a mere $956,000 in free money when there are millions in PAC money out there?

Frank A. DeFilippo writes from Owings Mills on Maryland political matters.

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