Bill seeks to double campaign gift limits


The General Assembly is considering a proposal to double the amount contributors can donate to all candidates running for state-regulated offices during a four-year cycle - a concept embraced by Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.

The legislation, which is pending in the House of Delegates and Senate, would increase the limit to $20,000. The current $10,000 limit was established in 1991.

"I am sympathetic to the cause," said Ehrlich, noting that some of his contributors exceeded the limits during the campaign. "I think the law needs to keep up with reality."

Though supported by a bipartisan coalition - who argue it would help challengers raise more money - campaign finance reform advocates say it will taint the system further.

"It would be a disaster to raise it. It would just make the rich [candidates] richer," said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause/Maryland. "The big contributors who are already getting access for their contributions would just get twice as much."

Instead, Browning and other advocates have their eye on two proposals sponsored by Del. Elizabeth Bobo, a Howard County Democrat.

One proposal would require campaign reports to include the occupation and employer of donors who give $251 or more in a four-year cycle. Bobo's other bill would close what she calls a loophole that treats limited-liability companies differently from corporations when it comes to campaign finance law.

Both proposals have been killed in previous years, but Bobo thinks their chances may be improved this year.

In the past, advocates called the Senate subcommittee that dealt with election laws the "graveyard" of campaign finance reform because the chairman often resisted the proposals. The subcommittee has a new chairman this year.

"The public interest may be heightened this year," Bobo said.

A poll released this week by the University of Maryland, College Park and the University of Baltimore found 75 percent of Marylanders believe money is a source of political corruption.

But House Minority Leader Alfred W. Redmer Jr., a Baltimore County Republican, believes his proposal to increase the total amount individuals and corporations can donate will benefit the system.

Redmer, the sponsor of the House bill to double the maximum limits, said the current process is shutting out challengers.

The law states that over four years, a person or corporation can give no more than a total of $10,000 to all candidates running for statewide, county and Baltimore City offices. Contributors are limited to giving a maximum of $4,000 to any individual candidate, and Redmer's bill would leave that unchanged.

Redmer said many contributors quickly reach their limits by donating to incumbents, leaving nothing for first-time candidates.

"If you follow the campaign money, the first dollar goes to [the governor]. The second dollar goes to legislative leaders. The third dollar goes to committee chairmen," Redmer said. "That leaves nothing left for the challenger."

But Bobo counters that Redmer's proposal would make incumbents harder to defeat.

"It increases the ability of connected legislators to raise even more money and makes it even more difficult for new people to get into the field," Bobo said.

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