- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 17, 2004

ANNAPOLIS — A commission created by the legislature is recommending a system of public financing for election campaigns that supporters say would help reduce the influence of wealthy contributors on state government.

The plan would make public funds available for candidates running for statewide office and the legislature who agree to limit the amount of money they spend on primary and general election campaigns.

The plan is “an alternative to going and getting handouts from special interests,” Delegate John Hurson, Montgomery County Democrat, said at a news conference when the final report was issued last week.

Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, Prince George’s County Democrat, said because of the influence that big contributors have on elections and government, “bills that benefit regular folks don’t get the hearing they deserve in Maryland.”

“Does anyone think slot machines would dominate the legislature the way they do if it wasn’t for all those campaign contributions?” Mr. Pinsky said.

Maryland has a public campaign-financing act, which generally has been regarded as ineffective because the only money going into the fund comes from voluntary contributions that Marylanders make when they file their annual income-tax returns. The fund has been used only once, by Republican Ellen Sauerbrey in her first race for governor in 1994.

The commission said in its report that voluntary contributions will not pay for a successful system of public funding of campaigns and recommended that regular tax funds be used in Maryland. It left it up to the legislature to determine whether there should be a special funding source, such as the 10 percent surcharge levied on all civil and criminal fines in Arizona.

The commission borrowed heavily from public-funding systems used in Arizona and Maine.

“They are doing it in Arizona. They are doing it in Maine,” Mr. Hurson said. “It’s working. It’s changing public perception.”

Under the commission proposal, candidates for the Senate and the House of Delegates would have to raise a small amount of money — about $1,250 based on current population figures — in donations of $5 or less to qualify for public funds. They would receive up to $100,000 combined for the primary and general elections, with the amounts depending on whether they were in the House or Senate and whether they had an opponent.

Candidates for governor would have to agree to limit spending to $15.6 million and would receive 50 cents for each dollar they raise. Candidates for attorney general and comptroller would get a dollar-for-dollar match and could spend no more than $1.65 million.

Candidates could be eligible for additional funds if they were running against big-spending opponents who did not take public funds and who exceeded the limits on spending proposed by the commission.

Mr. Pinsky and Mr. Hurson acknowledged that it will not be easy to pass the bill and said they might have to accept something less than the full package to start.

But they said the law would reduce the influence of special interests and would help restore public confidence in elections and in state government.

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