Cleaner elections [Editorial]

Del. Heather Mizeur's decision to accept public financing for her gubernatorial campaign may be a transparent attempt to turn what is likely to be a massive fundraising deficit into some shred of advantage. So what? By being the first candidate since 1994 to do so, she breathes some life into a system that had seemed all but dead and gives some real momentum to efforts to make public financing more broadly available state-wide.

Ms. Mizeur has styled her campaign as something of a giant public service project, and this may be the ultimate manifestation of that. If she can make a decent showing in the Democratic primary — much less win — while likely being outspent by as much as 4-1 by each of her two main rivals, the entire conversation around public campaign financing in Maryland will change.

Delegate Mizeur made the announcement as part of her roll-out of a broader set of proposals for campaign finance reform. The most important of them is extending the public financing system, which is now only available to gubernatorial candidates, to all those who seek state offices. The rest of her proposals are intriguing, but they may be obviated to some degree by existing reforms the General Assembly passed this year.

Thanks in no small part to the efforts of two other gubernatorial candidates — Democratic Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler and Republican Del. Ron George — Maryland passed its most significant campaign finance reforms in a generation this spring. In exchange for raising contribution limits, lawmakers addressed some of the most egregious loopholes that had allowed individual donors to wield outsized influence in elections and increased transparency in the system. Mr. Gansler convened a work group two years ago to study possible reforms to the state's laws, and its recommendations provided a roadmap for a later General Assembly-mandated committee, which in turn led to this year's reforms. Mr. George served on both groups and helped ensure the legislation's passage. (Del. Jon Cardin, a Democrat who is running for attorney general, was another chief sponsor.)

Among the most important reforms was the tightening of a loophole that allowed the owners of related limited liability corporations (mostly developers) to give separately from each entity, thus avoiding donation caps. The legislation limited the activities of campaign slates, which had allowed some politicians to play kingmaker, and required heightened disclosure of contributions by companies that do business with the state. The new laws go into effect after the 2014 election.

Ms. Mizeur wants to go farther by banning donations altogether from corporations and from the top executives of companies that do business with the state. Determining whether that step will be necessary will have to wait until the existing reforms have had a chance to work. Ultimately, it will likely depend on how well the state Board of Elections wields the enhanced enforcement powers the new law gives it.

But her proposal to expand Maryland's public campaign financing system to cover all state-wide candidates is unquestionably an advance. Public financing was part of the discussion during the crafting of this year's reform legislation, but there wasn't sufficient support for it in the legislature. Rather than give up the idea entirely, proponents — including Delegate George — pushed for the law to give local jurisdictions the authority to establish their own public financing systems as a sort of a pilot project. So far, Montgomery and Howard counties are pursuing the idea.

Delegate Mizeur's plan is similar to ones that have been proposed in recent years by Sen. Paul Pinsky and others. Candidates who agree to certain conditions, such as limiting the contributions they receive to $250, would get matching funds from the state. Gubernatorial candidates would be eligible to receive up to $4 million, and candidates for attorney general, comptroller, state Senate and House of Delegates would be eligible for less. Ms. Mizeur estimates that such a system would cost about $10 million a year, which she proposes to finance through a new surcharge on district court fines.

Discomfort at the idea of spending taxpayers money to fund election campaigns has been one of the chief stumbling blocks for public financing legislation in the past. But taxpayers would certainly consider it a small price to pay to ensure that elected officials are not beholden, consciously or subconsciously, to those who fund their campaigns. The legislature's new reforms are a major advance, but without giving candidates the option of public financing, they fall short of securing the public's trust.

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