The Maryland Senate gave its preliminary approval yesterday to a landmark campaign finance reform bill designed to make it easier for the public to learn who is giving candidates money and how they spend it.
Handing election reform advocates a significant victory on their top-priority issue, the Senate voted to endorse the measure after adopting amendments that put Maryland firmly on a path toward computerization of campaign contribution records.
The decision to strengthen the bill came after a surprising reversal by Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., the sponsor of the legislation. Last week, Miller was the prime mover behind amendments regarded by reform groups as an attempt to delay computerization.
Yesterday's revisions make the bill substantially compatible with legislation passed by the House of Delegates, increasing the likelihood that the General Assembly will enact serious reforms before it adjourns April 7. With Miller's backing, the Senate bill is expected to pass easily on its final vote.
"The Senate president acted in the public's interest by ensuring that campaign finance information will be provided in an easily accessible manner," said Deborah Povich, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "Computerization is the touchstone for any campaign finance reform, because what it means is meaningful, timely disclosure."
State campaign finance reports are now submitted on bulky and disorganized paper forms, making it difficult to track who is giving what to whom.
Friday, at the behest of Miller, the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee adopted amendments that would have removed the requirement that candidates for
statewide office file their campaign finance reports electronically starting in November 1998.
Those amendments would have made electronic filing voluntary for candidates and would have put the burden of entering data from paper reports on the state elections board -- without any guarantee of sufficient funds to prevent a logjam.
Those changes brought sharp criticism from advocates of campaign finance reform, who charged that Miller was in effect gutting his own bill. The Senate president became the target of scathing editorials accusing him of playing a political "bait-and-switch" game.
Yesterday's changes, rushed through the subcommittee Tuesday night, effectively reversed Friday's decisions. Sen. Paul. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat, said most members of the full committee did not learn about the changes until they reached the Senate floor yesterday morning.
After yesterday's session, Miller was apparently still steaming from the roasting he had received in the press. "Everything I say gets misconstrued," he said, declining to speak with a reporter.
Some advocates of campaign finance reform discounted suspicions of a deliberate attempt to sabotage the bill. "I don't subscribe to anything sinister or mysterious," said Sen. Christopher J. McCabe, a Howard County Republican who voted against Friday's changes in the committee.
Povich, who sharply criticized Miller last week, was prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt yesterday.
"He may not have understood the implications of the changes originally proposed on Friday, and I think he made a conscious decision to demonstrate his commitment to fuller disclosure," she said.
With yesterday's changes, Miller's bill contains provisions similar to those in two of the campaign finance reform bills proposed by House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. One of Taylor's bills would implement computerization, and the other would ban fund-raising during the General Assembly session by legislators and statewide officials, including the governor.
Both presiding officers introduced campaign reform packages this session in the wake of fund-raising scandals in the preceding year.
Taylor's package is regarded as the stronger of the two because it includes provisions Miller's does not. One Taylor bill would require that candidates list the occupations and employers of donors who give $500 or more. Another would require more-frequent reports from candidates during periods of active fund-raising.
Both bills passed the House easily and are scheduled to be heard today by the Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee.
Also in doubt is the fate of legislation that would increase penalties and extend the state's two-year statute of limitations for election law violations. In recent years, some contributors who violated the law have escaped penalty because their infractions were discovered too late.
Last week, a House committee passed the bill with increased penalties but watered down the statute-of-limitations provision. Meanwhile, a Senate committee passed its version with a stronger statute of limitations but no increase in penalties.
'I'm awfully disappointed'
Yesterday's floor debate before the preliminary approval of the Miller bill showed that many senators still regard mandatory computerization of campaign records as the political equivalent of being told to eat their lima beans.
"I'm awfully disappointed that we have to have a bill like this to teach us the difference between right and wrong," thundered Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat.
Sen. George W. Della Jr., a Baltimore Democrat, expressed concern that "when 1999 comes, everybody's going to have to own a computer before they run for public office."
But Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat who has shepherded Miller's bill through its various incarnations, said the bill was simply "recognizing the realities of modern technology."
Pub Date: 3/20/97