Panel members band around need for increased campaign donation limits

Sarah Breitenbach

Members of a commission studying Maryland’s campaign finance laws appear to agree that the election process is hindered by how much money individual donors can contribute to candidates.

In their first meeting since a two-day session to hear public comment on reforms, members of the Commission to Study Campaign Finance Law agreed Monday that laws limiting individuals from donating more than $4,000 to one candidate or $10,000 to all candidates in a four-year election cycle need to be changed.

"I would say that we really want to give people and individuals, as defined by the law, an opportunity to give to all the candidates they want to," said panel member Del. Jon S. Cardin (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills.

The state’s campaign contribution limits have not been changed since 1991, when the limits were increased from $2,000 and $4,000, respectively.

Commission members discussed the possibility of tying the increases to inflation and potentially recommending a method of automatically increasing donation amounts over time to avoid another two-decade gap in addressing the law.

"(We’ve gone) for over 20 years with a fixed number on these contribution limits, and the cost of living, the complexity and the expense associated with campaigns have increased certainly far more in the last 20 years, just by the nature of how campaigns are conducted," said Bruce L. Marcus, a Greenbelt attorney who leads the commission.

The 18-member commission was created in 2011 by a General Assembly resolution to study potential campaign finance reforms. The General Assembly already has passed four bills in response to an interim report presented by the commission prior to the 2012 session.

Maryland’s restrictions on individual giving are above the national median, but are significantly lower than the highest limits in places like New York and Ohio, where individuals can give up to $60,800 for a gubernatorial race and $23,087 for a legislative race, respectively.

The rates also fall below surrounding states like Virginia and Pennsylvania, where those type of contributions are unlimited.

In West Virginia, individual donors can contribute $1,000 per candidate per election. In Delaware, statewide candidates can receive $1,200 from a single person, while other campaigns are capped at $600 single donations.

Del. Ronald A. George (R-Dist. 30) of Arnold said the contribution amounts need to increase, aligning with the growing costs of running campaigns.

"It makes sense to me to go up, but I don’t know by how much," George told members of the panel.

The group took no formal votes but agreed to move forward with plans to recommend the governor and General Assembly increase the contribution limits.

It also will offer suggestions to change state laws on how much limited liability corporations and other entities can contribute to campaigns, whether the state should develop a new form of public financing for campaigns and whether government contractors should be barred from donating, among other policy issues.

During last week’s public hearings, finance reform advocates said LLCs give powerful business people undue influence on elections because they may own dozens of such corporations and use the system to funnel money to candidates.

It can be hard to discern just where donations are coming from within an LLC because the address or manager listed for the corporation may have no financial relationship to the person making the monetary contribution, Marcus said.

The commission's report is due to the governor and General Assembly by the end of the year.

"The goal is to have a consensus by August so we can begin actually putting pen to paper," Marcus said. "We have to have it done by the end of the year … we want to allow everyone to have an opportunity to comment."