In a change of heart, U.S. Rep. Helen Delich Bentley, the front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, yesterday said she would not seek public funds to help finance her primary campaign.
Mrs. Bentley and four other candidates originally told the state election board they would consider public funding, but as yesterday's final deadline for filing approached, she abandoned the plan, calling it "nothing more than political welfare."
Many politicians were surprised at Mrs. Bentley's initial declaration of intent to seek public funds earlier this month. They assumed her campaign was well-financed with private contributions. If she had accepted the public money, she would have been bound by a $1 million spending limit, well below the amount leading Democrats are expected to spend.
"After considering the idea and giving it some study, I am opposed to the notion that candidates should ride on the backs of taxpayers before they are even nominated in the primary election," she said in a prepared statement.
But the money in the state's public campaign finance fund -- established in 1974 but never used until this year -- came from voluntary contributions. Mrs. Bentley's apparent confusion over the source of the funds drew an immediate response from the campaign of a GOP rival, Maryland House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey.
"The matching funds are not taxpayers' money -- they're voluntary contributions from people who wanted public funding of elections," said Carol L. Hirschburg, the Sauerbrey campaign's finance director.
"Even considering Helen's limited knowledge of state government, she should know that," Ms. Hirschburg said.
To receive matching funds under Maryland's "fair campaign financing" law, state elections officials must certify that a gubernatorial candidate has raised $150,000 in qualifying contributions.
Those contributions must be from individuals, not corporations or political action committees. Contributions of $250 or less are counted toward the total, as well as the first $250 of larger donations.
If they qualify, candidates can tap into Maryland's $2.9 million Fair Campaign Financing Fund, receiving $1 in public funds for every $2 they've raised. But they're limited to spending $1 million in the primary and $1 million in the general election.
Mrs. Sauerbrey was one of three gubernatorial hopefuls who filed certified requests for the public money by yesterday's deadline. She is seeking $94,370.18 from the state's fund, which means she has raised $188,740.36 in eligible matching contributions.
State Sen. Mary H. Boergers, a Democrat from Montgomery County, is asking for $83,672.25, indicating that she has raised $167,344.50, while Sen. American Joe Miedusiewski, a Baltimore Democrat, sought $79,357.50, indicating that he has raised $158,715.
Another Republican candidate, William S. Shepard, a retired foreign service officer from Montgomery County, never followed through on an original declaration of intent to seek public funds.
If Mr. Shepard were to win the GOP primary, however, he could apply for matching funds in the general election, officials said yesterday. And candidates who qualify for the matching funds in the primary do not have to use them in the general election.
Under the law, a candidate may qualify for up to $340,000 in public matching funds for the primary election and nearly $1 million for the general election.
Election officials, after seeking advice from the attorney general's office, yesterday clarified use of the funds for general election expenses.
The attorney general's latest advice contradicted an earlier statement that the law allowed a qualifying candidate to take the $1 million in public funds for the general election -- a major cash infusion on the day after the primary -- and still not be bound by the campaign spending limits.
Under the earlier ruling, a candidate could receive the state money and continue private fund-raising efforts. Once the candidate exceeded the $1 million spending limit, however, he or she would be disqualified for the public funds and required to repay the state without penalty -- in effect getting a $1 million interest-free loan.
But Marvin L. Meyn, deputy administrator of the state elections board, said yesterday that this was no longer true. A candidate who "knowingly exceeded the spending limit" would be subject to a penalty that could include a $5,000 fine, a year in prison and a prohibition from holding office for five years.
There also was some confusion yesterday over funds raised between today and the Sept. 13 primary. The Bentley and Boergers campaigns believed that money they raise between now and the primary would qualify for matching public funds.
But Mr. Meyn said no. "This is the deadline and that's it," he said.
Jim Brochin, Mr. Miedusiewski's campaign manager who arrived the elections board five minutes before the 5 p.m. filing deadline, said he had understood that to be the rule all along.