Election reforms with teeth Computer lists: Spotting campaign finance violators will be easier, penalties tougher.


PUBLIC EMBARRASSMENT works. Had it not been for a series of campaign financing controversies last year, election reforms likely would have been ignored by the 1997 General Assembly. Instead, state legislators embraced this week -- some with extreme reluctance -- major changes that put Maryland in the forefront of giving citizens easier access to campaign reports, making it simple to spot violations and providing prosecutors with better enforcement tools.

Right now, 6,000 candidates file campaign finance reports by paper, leaving citizens with little chance of making sense out of the incredible array of details in these massive filings. That should change later this year. At the same time, this bill should breathe new life into the moribund office of state prosecutor.

The key improvement is a requirement that campaign finance reports be computerized. Starting in November, all candidates for statewide offices must file via computer disks. In 1999 -- after the next round of elections -- all other candidates who file reports in Annapolis must do so with the help of a computer.

This will transform the state elections board. Computer cross-checks of campaign reports will identify violators rapidly. Citizens will be able to track with ease which groups are giving funds to which candidates. And the state prosecutor will know right away when someone gives more than the maximum allowed by law.

Equally important for law-enforcement, the bill contains a new civil penalty for violations. Until now, the only way an individual could be prosecuted was for "willful" violations -- a criminal offense. That's a tough thing to prove.

The bill should also further distance lobbyists from statewide candidates by banning them from doing fund-raising in these races. Another bill forces businesses with big state contracts to file a campaign contributions list. That ought to help determine if any company gained undue influence with an official by raising big sums of campaign cash.

One final ramification of the election reform bill: It will force candidates thinking about running for governor to make their BTC decisions sooner rather than later because a provision forbids fund-raising during the January-early April period when the General Assembly meets. Anyone who is serious about a gubernatorial bid in 1998 had better declare his or her intentions this spring or summer while there is still time to raise campaign dollars before the new ban commences in January.

Pub Date: 04/04/97

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