Md.'s arbitrary campaign finance laws [Editorial]

If Thursday's ruling by the Maryland Board of Elections on which gubernatorial campaigns are allowed to raise money during the upcoming General Assembly session proves anything, it's just how arbitrary Maryland's campaign finance laws are. The board's decision, which can and probably will be appealed in court, held that Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown can't raise money for his gubernatorial campaign during the session because he is a state-level official, but his running mate, Howard County Executive Ken Ulman, can. Likewise, Harford County Executive David Craig can raise money for his gubernatorial bid, but his running mate, Del. Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, cannot.

Maryland law prohibits state officials — including legislators, the governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general and comptroller — from raising money during the session. The elections board concluded that so long as Messrs. Brown and Ulman or Mr. Craig and Ms. Haddaway-Riccio do not coordinate or cooperate with each other on the fund-raising efforts by the local-official halves of their tickets during the session, the law doesn't apply. But watchdog group Common Cause — and, unsurprisingly, the gubernatorial campaign of Attorney General Douglas F. Gansler, whose running mate is Del. Jolene Ivey — are crying foul, saying the distinction is meaningless.

That may be true, but so is the distinction of regulating fund-raising differently on Jan. 7 than on Jan. 8. In fact, we are in the midst of the traditional end-of-the-year crush of political fund-raisers as candidates soak up cash before the General Assembly session like camels taking one last drink before embarking on a trip across the desert. Lobbyist Bruce Bereano, who maintains a calendar of such events, lists no fewer than 50 fund-raisers between Dec. 28 and the start of the session. Another flurry of fund-raising will take place as soon as the General Assembly adjourns in April. If the point of the law is to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, it certainly falls short.

Then there are the exceptions to the rule. Fund-raising is prohibited during the regular General Assembly session, but not during special legislative sessions or extended sessions. That means that if the legislature fails to pass a budget and must go into overtime (as has happened occasionally), lawmakers can feel free to raise money from anyone they like as they make crucial decisions about taxes and spending. Similarly, when the General Assembly spent a month in special session in 2007 to deliberate on a package of tax increases and the legalization of slot machine gambling, members were allowed to keep raising money, and some did. Both Gov. Martin O'Malley and Sen. Ulysses Currie, who was at the time chairman of the Budget and Taxation Committee, deposited campaign checks during the special session. In total, state officials logged more than half a million dollars in contributions during those weeks. Legislation to close that loophole went nowhere during the 2008 regular session.

Another curious exemption is that a state official who is a candidate for a federal or local office faces no restrictions on fund-raising during a legislative session. The implication is that if a legislator is running for re-election, it would look bad for him to hold fund-raisers during the session, but if he's running for county executive — as at least two are this year — it doesn't. That makes no sense.

The ostensible purpose of the law is to eliminate the possibility that donors will buy votes (or appear to) during a General Assembly session. In effect, that's an admission that there's some truth to critics' contention that campaign contributions are like legalized bribery. If that's the case during the legislative session, isn't it also the case during the other 335 days of the year?

If the law is inadequate when it comes to avoiding the appearance if impropriety, it fails altogether when it comes to another important value, which is ensuring a level playing field among candidates for the state's highest office. Mr. Brown's gubernatorial campaign will benefit if Mr. Ulman keeps raising funds during the legislative session, as he has indicated he will do. But Mr. Gansler will not have the same opportunity, simply because he chose a member of the House of Delegates as his running mate. Mr. Craig can raise money during the session, but one of his Republican rivals, Del. Ron George, can't unless he quits the General Assembly or picks the right running mate.

The way to solve all concerns is public campaign financing. Del. Heather Mizeur, the third major Democrat in the race, is participating in the state's limited system, and as a result, she is allowed to continue collecting small donations during the session. Right now, only gubernatorial candidates are permitted to take advantage of the public funding, and Ms. Mizeur is the first to do so in 20 years. It's simply not part of the state's political culture, and it won't be unless it's an option for all state office-seekers. Until then, we're stuck with a loophole-ridden system that offers little assurance to the public.

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