Drive for public financing under way


Critics of the role money plays in politics launched a drive yesterday for legislation that would pay most of the campaign expenses of participating General Assembly candidates in the 2010 election.

At an Annapolis news conference, a coalition threw its support behind bills based on the recommendations last month of a commission on the public financing of elections.

Carl W. Stenberg, who headed the commission, said public financing is needed to address a public perception that large donors have a disproportionate influence on politics.

"We wanted a system that would improve government ethics," said Stenberg, a former University of Baltimore dean who now teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The legislation's lead sponsors - Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George's Democrat, and Del. John A. Hurson, a Montgomery Democrat - plan two bills.

One would implement the full recommendations of the commission, including a public financing plan for statewide candidates and legislators. The other would apply only to General Assembly races.

Hurson said proponents consider the latter bill to be more politically viable in view of the state's fiscal problems, and it was that measure that advocates emphasized in their news conference.

That measure would create a voluntary system under which candidates who raise a minimum amount of seed money - $3,500 for Senate candidates and $2,500 for House of Delegates hopefuls - would qualify for full financing of the rest of their campaign expenses.

Proponents said requiring the seed money, which would have to come in the form of hundreds of small contributions - would make it difficult for fringe candidates to qualify for public money.

The system would impose spending limits on the primary and general election campaigns of candidates who accept public financing. A Senate candidate would be limited to spending $50,000 in a primary and $50,000 in the general election. A House candidate in a three-member district could spend $40,000 in each race.

Proponents said similar systems have been adopted in Maine and Arizona, and are working well in both states.

Hurson emphasized that the system would be voluntary and that it would give people who want a life in public service an alternative to asking for handouts from special interests.

Supporters of the concept - including Progressive Maryland and Common Cause/Maryland - argued that the cost of the legislature-only bill would be insignificant. They estimated its cost at $27 million over four years and suggested that the cost could be financed with stiffer fines for drunken driving.

The legislation is likely to face opposition from Republican legislators on political grounds. Some leading Republicans are confident they can increase their numbers in the Assembly with the fund-raising muscle of Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich. The governor has previously expressed doubts about public financing.

Sen. Paula C. Hollinger, who chairs the Senate committee that will consider the bill, said she has concerns about the cost.

"If we can figure out how to fund it, I think it's a great idea, but you have to be able to pay for it," the Baltimore County Democrat said.

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