- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 29, 2007

ANNAPOLIS — The Maryland Senate plans to begin work today on a bill to provide public funding for some political candidates who agree to limit private fundraising.

The bill is intended to make politicians less beholden to donors by giving them state money to run campaigns.

As proposed, the measure would be voluntary and would affect only state General Assembly campaigns. Politicians who want to get the money would have to raise $6,750 in “seed money,” including at least $5 from 350 voters in their district. The seed money would qualify them to get as much as $50,000 for a state Senate race or $40,000 for a House race.

Some state lawmakers support the idea, saying fundraising distracts from their jobs as lawmakers.

“For us to have to grovel, to ask for thousands of dollars constantly, is not what we’re here to do,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky, a Prince George’s Democrat who sponsored the bill.

Mr. Pinsky cited the looming trial of former Sen. Thomas Bromwell on corruption charges. Mr. Bromwell, a former Baltimore Democrat, is accused of steering legislation to favor his contributors, among other things.

Mr. Pinsky said the Bromwell case shows the dangers of campaign fundraising. When donors open their pocketbooks for politicians, Mr. Pinsky said, “these people expect influence.”

However, even some of the bill’s supporters concede the odds are against the plan. The bill has been considered before without success.

Complaints about the influence of political donors are common, but other states and Congress have struggled to adopt ideas such as the one before Maryland senators today. For one, public financing could infringe on political freedom to support a candidate — hence the voluntary aspect of Mr. Pinsky’s bill.

Other opponents say state tax dollars should not be used to fund political campaigns. A state analysis of Mr. Pinsky’s bill showed it could cost more than $500,000 a year, depending on how many politicians take part and how many taxpayers agree to a $5 donation on their annual state income tax returns to pay for the change.

Left unspoken is another roadblock — politicians in office often get there because they’re good at raising money. Public campaigns leave open the possibility of a no-name challenger running against incumbents when they wouldn’t have the fundraising advantage incumbency provides.

Bills seldom fail once they make it to a full Senate discussion. But the public-financing bill could be the exception, said Sen. Joan Carter Conway, a Baltimore City Democrat who leads the committee that approved the measure by a slim margin.

“I don’t think the votes are there,” she said.

Also working against the measure is its late timing. Lawmakers have only seven working days left, and a House version of the bill has not been considered. A deadline for bills to pass at least one chamber has already passed.

Finance reform activists urged lawmakers to get moving on the bill. Sean Dobson, acting director of Progressive Maryland, said he was telling lawmakers that the reform would not hurt incumbents.

“The point is not to change what happen in elections,” he said. “The point is to change what happens after elections, so lawmakers don’t feel any obligation to deep-pocket special interests,” he said.

Mr. Pinsky planned to make a similar argument to his fellow senators.

“We have to start changing the atmosphere,” he said.

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