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We’re Almost There for Public Financing of General Assembly Campaigns
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by Cliff Terry | 2008

Many of the legislators you lobby on environmental issues depend heavily on campaign contributions from businesses and industry trade associations. And the financial self-interest of many of these big contributors puts them on the “anti-environment” side of some of the issues you care most about.

Last year, after several years of trying, a bill to provide full public funding for campaigns for the General Assembly came within one vote of passing the state Senate. That’s the first time public funding even got out of the Senate Committee on Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs (EHEA). The House of Delegates never voted on it in 2007, waiting for Senate action, but passed it in 2006. This may be the year to get it through both houses.

Here’s what it’s about. Many of the legislators you lobby on environmental issues depend heavily on campaign contributions from businesses and industry trade associations. And the financial self-interest of many of these big contributors puts them on the “anti-environment” side of some of the issues you care most about.

For example, this session’s bill to protect the Chesapeake Bay by strengthening critical- area rules prohibiting shoreline development will be fought bitterly by deep-pocketed development interests.

Big campaign contributions cannot help but influence General Assembly members’ votes on bills that will help or hurt the contributors.

No amount of tinkering with the current system of financing campaigns will solve this problem. We need a new system. That new system is public financing of General Assembly campaigns, as recommended in 2004 by the Study Commission on Public Funding of Campaigns in Maryland.

It would be similar to systems that have been working well for several years in Maine and Arizona. It has worked so well that, last I knew, 84% of the Maine House and Senate and 9 out of 11 statewide elected officials in Arizona, including the governor, had run and won solely with public funding.

All General Assembly candidates who wish to receive public funding would first have to show broad public support by collecting a specified number and amount of “qualifying” contributions from registered voters in their districts. They must agree to spend essentially nothing on their campaigns except the public funding they receive.

The bills, cross-filed, are SB 593 and HB 971. If you agree that public funding of campaigns could transform Maryland politics, please call your senator and delegates and ask them to support these bills. [It is especially important that those of you who live in EHEA Chair Joan Carter Conway’s district (District 43, Baltimore City) call her at 410-841-3145.]

Tell them the current system encourages public cynicism about the influence of big contributions on legislators’ votes. Also, tell them it forces candidates to spend too much time asking for money, time that should instead be spent talking to voters and (in the case of incumbents) doing their jobs.

If you have questions, please call me at 410-944-9477 or e-mail to  cliff.terry@maryland.sierraclub.org .

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