By Ilana Kowarski
A major campaign finance reform bill cleared the House of Delegates Thursday, and a Senate version of the bill is now being considered in committee.
The bill would increase campaign contribution limits and stiffen penalties for those who fail to disclose their contributions. It was unanimously passed by the House of Delegates.
This legislation would also close a significant election law loophole that allows businesses to donate above contribution limits by giving through multiple names in related corporations.
The bill implements recommendations of the Commission to Study Campaign Finance Law. It does not kick in until after the 2014 election, for which fundraising has already been underway.
The Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee held a hearing on the Campaign Finance Reform Act on Thursday, and the senators sponsoring that bill advocated for its passage, saying that it would promote government transparency and reduce the political influence of special interest groups.
Senators Joanne Benson, D-Prince George’s, and Bill Ferguson, D-Baltimore City, defended their legislation against committee members who argued that the bill would impose undue burdens on political campaigns if it was not amended.
Senators look into details of in-kind donations, accidental mistakes
Sen. Ronald Young, D-Frederick, said he was concerned about a provision in the bill expanding the definition of in-kind contributions, and he asked the bill’s sponsors to change the law and clarify that volunteering would not constitute an in-kind contribution.
Anne Arundel County Republican Bryan Simonaire also expressed reservations about the legislation. He wanted to add a provision that would require officials to consider if the violation was intentional before deciding on a punishment.
“I just want to make sure that we go after the bad apples and not those who accidentally made a mistake,” Simonaire said. He added that without the change, the law could potentially result in millions of dollars in penalties for clerical errors, since the State Board of Elections might assess multiple fines for repeat mistakes.
Benson and Ferguson agreed to consider the amendments that Young and Simonaire proposed, but they reminded fellow legislators that the bill is a significant step towards campaign finance reform, since it expands contribution reporting requirements and mandates that campaigns report out-of-state contributions.
Bill expands contribution limits
The legislation also increases campaign contribution limits by 50%, allowing donors to give up to $6,000 to a single campaign, $2,000 more than the current limit, and more than doubles the maximum amount of total donations from $10,000 to $24,000. Some campaign finance reform advocates, who worry about the influence of money in politics, object to this provision. Several of these advocates proposed amendments that would reduce the amount of money that donors can give.
However, campaign finance reform advocates came out in support of SB 1039 at the committee hearing. They explained that they favor the law despite its increase of the contribution maximums because it stiffens penalties for election law violations. The proposed penalties will be a significant disincentive to those who wish to bribe elected officials, they said.