State won't enforce $10,000 limit on campaign contributions

After a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Maryland election officials said Friday that they will no longer enforce a state law that imposes an overall limit of $10,000 on campaign contributions in a four-year election cycle.

State officials said they would continue to enforce a Maryland law limiting individuals to contributing no more than $4,000 to a particular candidate during an election cycle. Donors, however, are now free to give $4,000 to as many candidates as desired.

Without the limit, moneyed donors are likely to give more — or be asked to give more — and lower-profile races are more likely to get their attention.

While some observers view unlimited donations as a boon for free speech, as they equate political giving with voicing an opinion, others lament that the rich will have too much influence in elections.

"This will be a game-changer," said state Sen. J.B. Jennings, a Republican who represents Baltimore and Harford counties.

"Is it good or bad? I don't think we necessarily know yet," he added. "For some businesspeople who love politics and love to play the game, it's going to take the reins off them. But for the others, it's just going to annoy them. Anybody who is running is going to be calling these people, and they won't be able to say, 'Sorry, I'm maxed out.'"

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, director of Common Cause Maryland, a government watchdog group, took a dimmer view.

"At the state level, this is colossally bad," she said. "It will drastically increase the amount of money spent. It diminishes the impact of an average citizen's voice in the process."

The Supreme Court ruled last week in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission that aggregate contribution limits are invalid under the First Amendment.

Therefore, Maryland's law limiting such contributions to $10,000 cannot be enforced, the Maryland State Board of Elections said.

The state will still enforce anti-circumvention restrictions, the board said. For instance, a person who has contributed $4,000 to a particular candidate may not also contribute more money to a slate including that candidate unless the contribution is expressly earmarked for use by the other candidates on the slate.

The decision could mean more expensive races for positions that traditionally haven't drawn as many donors.

That's because even as money pours into high-profile state races, such as contests for governor and attorney general, wealthy contributors to those races will still be able to give to lower-profile candidates, such as those vying for state delegate or county council.

"Right now, people aren't spending a lot of money in a delegate race or Senate race," said Greenbelt attorney Bruce L. Marcus, chairman of a state commission that studied campaign finance laws. "What this ruling may do is up the game in some of these races."

State Sen. Bill Ferguson, a Democrat from Baltimore City, finds that troubling, although he agrees the Board of Elections had no choice but to follow the Supreme Court's ruling. He said the changing rules underscore the need for greater transparency in contributions, such as more regular reporting.

"The McCutcheon decision is a sad day for democracy," Ferguson said. "We will really struggle in the years ahead to deal with the overwhelming influence of money in politics."

But Bruce L. Robinson, a small-business owner from Baltimore County who sat on the state's campaign finance commission, thinks such a change is good for Maryland and the country.

"I'm from an old-school perspective," said Robinson, who owns Basic Sound Business Services in Overlea. "I believe you should give whatever you want and make sure it's transparent. If someone wants to give $100,000, so be it. The voters can make the decision about whether the candidate has been corrupted."

The elimination of limits on aggregate campaign contributions comes as individual contribution limits are set to increase in future elections in Maryland. Starting in 2015, limits on individual contributions to any one candidate rise to $6,000 under state law.

At the same time, the state has moved to close the so-called "LLC loophole," through which business owners funnel contributions to candidates through limited liability corporations. For instance, developer Edward St. John has contributed more than $250,000 to Maryland politicians from both parties over two years through dozens of corporations he owns, a Baltimore Sun analysis showed.

The law for the next election cycle will treat multiple corporate entities as one for the purpose of campaign donations if they are 80 percent owned by the same person or persons. Companies also are limited to giving no more than $4,000 to a candidate per election cycle.

Bevan-Dangel said she believes the impact of that reform would be "undermined" by the McCutcheon decision. She also said limits on contributions through LLCs to slates and political action committees will be tough to enforce.

"It used to be people could give $250,000 through various LLCs," she said. "Now they can still give $250,000, just to different candidates. They say you can't use slates or PACs, but enforcing that will be incredibly difficult."

She and Ferguson said they worry about the integrity of future elections in light of the ruling.

Marcus, the attorney, said the high court's decision is much different from some of the principles set forth in a 1976 landmark campaign contribution ruling, Buckley v. Valeo. That ruling upheld limitations on contributions to candidates for federal office, stating they constituted one of the election law's "primary weapons against the reality or appearance of improper influence." That decision also struck down several limitations on campaign expenditures.

"This is a wholesale change in how the Supreme Court views these types of restrictions," Marcus said. "The next frontier is: What's wrong with me favoring a candidate as much as I want? You're looking at maybe striking down all limits."

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