Legislation would give state voters more political gift information

In more than 30 states, if a corporate chieftain were to ask top executives to contribute to a politician, an inquisitive voter could easily learn that the firm was bankrolling the candidate.

But not in Maryland. Campaigns are not required to disclose the occupation and employer of large contributors.

That will change as of June 1 if Gov. Martin O'Malley signs legislation approved by the General Assembly that would require campaigns to gather such information from donors who give $500 or more to a single candidate during a four-year election cycle.

According to the governor's office, the bill is one of hundreds under review for a decision on whether to sign or veto. So far, O'Malley has used his veto power sparingly, and the bill's sponsors are confident he will sign it.

Passage of the measure was hailed by Common Cause Maryland and other campaign finance disclosure advocates as a significant step forward at a time when candidates for state office — like those nationally — are becoming increasingly dependent on donors with deep pockets to pay for mounting expenses.

"It creates more transparency within the campaign finance system," said Common Cause executive director Susan Wichmann. "It gives voters more information about what industries are funding campaigns."

The requirement that campaigns disclose a contributor's employer and occupation has been a fixture of federal law since the early 1970s, but Maryland had bucked the trend. "Maryland's playing catch-up – definitely," said Wichmann.

When the legislature finally adopted the measure in March, it did so by decisive margins. The final vote on the bipartisan Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Baltimore Democratic Sen. Bill Ferguson, was 46-0. In the House, the vote was 89-45, with most Republicans opposed.

Passage of the bill was one of several victories racked up this year by government reform advocates.

Among the others was a bill requiring that the ethics disclosure forms filed by legislators and other high-ranking officials be made available online. Another measure, also backed by Common Cause, will put a constitutional amendment on the November ballot that would force elected officials who commit crimes to leave office immediately upon a finding of guilt rather than lingering on the job until sentencing.

Legislators also created a task force that will examine other potential changes to the state's ethics laws — a possible springboard to further reform measures next year.

"I actually think we had a very successful session," Wichmann said.

The employer-occupation disclosure bill flows from a commission the Assembly created last year to study the state's campaign finance system. The panel, chaired by prominent lawyer Bruce Marcus, recommended that the legislature hold hearings on the idea of adopting a version of the federal requirement.

Del. Jon S. Cardin, the Baltimore County Democrat who was lead sponsor of the House bill, said voters have a right to know if, say, 20 individuals connected with a firm donate large sums to a candidate.

"That's probably useful information," said Cardin, who served on the commission.

He said voters might also want to know whether a candidate is receiving significant support from certain industries or professions, whether it be health insurers or trial lawyers.

According to Wichmann, researchers on campaign financing have been able to compile reports about industries supporting certain campaigns on the federal level and in other states, but have not been able to do so in Maryland.

If, for instance, researchers wanted to know whether a large law firm were heavily backing one candidate, under current law they would need to ferret out the names of all its lawyers and match them up with the campaign data base. Under the new law, they could extract that information with only a few mouse-clicks.

"It would help with a sort of a better aggregation by industry," said Ferguson.

But Del. Ron George, an Anne Arundel Republican who served on the commission, helped lead opposition to the bill in the House. He said that while he's not dead-set against the idea, the bill wasn't thoroughly examined for possible unintended consequences.

"The feeling was that it should be vetted more so that we're protecting voters from intimidation," he said. "Employers could look at it to see which employees are donating to which candidates."

In fact, employers could look for that information in Maryland now, but like outside researchers they would have to look up one name at a time.

Melissa Goemann, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, said that because occupation and employer would be disclosed only for donations totalling $500 or more, the bill doesn't intrude on privacy to an unreasonable degree.

"You want to promote an informed electorate and increased transparency," said Goemann, who testified in favor of the bill. "We thought it struck a good balance."

In fact, the Maryland measure would set one of the higher financial thresholds in the country for reporting occupation and employer. Some states set the bar as low as $25.

Ferguson said he thought the $500 level was reasonable, adding that it helped win bipartisan support in the Senate, where Sen. Allan Kittleman, R-Howard, was a cosponsor.

"In a perfect world, I think it would have been even lower," Ferguson said.

Wichmann said some of the most important campaign finance reforms her group is seeking remain to be accomplished.

Among the most important, she said, is closing a loophole that allows businesses with multiple limited liability corporations to contribute the $4,000 maximum to a candidate through each LLC. The loophole has allowed large developers, who typically set up a separate LLC for each of their projects, to give tens of thousands of dollars to favored candidates while making it difficult to trace all the money to its source.

Another change Common Cause still wants to see is a limit on the use of slates to move money around the state. Currently, it's legal for all the Democratic or Republican senators or delegates in the state to form a slate and to quickly transfer unlimited money from one race to another depending on which is closely contested.

That change could be the toughest nut to crack, however, because the current system provides a powerful political tool to the presiding officers of both the state Senate and House of Delegates. Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, in particular, is a master of the art of moving money among members of his slate.

Such assistance helps the presiding officers retain the loyalty of caucus members and tighten their grip on power. Thus, it's questionable whether any move to rein in slates would stand much of a chance in the legislature.

Wichmann recognizes the hurdles.

"Obviously, when you're reforming a campaign finance system, you're affecting the way people have traditionally raised money in politics, so it's always a struggle," she said. "We hope that good government policies will prevail for the citizens of the state."