In addition, lawmakers approved a modest measure obligating them to publish their disclosure forms online. Unfortunately, the online disclosures will not include those of officials in the executive branch or the stock holdings and business investments of lawmakers; to gain access to those, interested members of the public or media will still have to travel to Annapolis and request the information in person. That’s absurd.
The central problem in Maryland persists: Laws governing donations to political campaigns remain riddled with loopholes. Their effect is to make it all but impossible to understand or trace the flow of money from deep-pocketed interests.
The two most acute symptoms of that problem are the use of cash conduits known as “limited liability corporations,” or LLCs, and the practice of forming slates of candidates. Both those devices are designed to exceed and evade campaign spending limits — $4,000 to a particular candidate and $10,000 to all candidates in any election cycle — that would otherwise apply to individuals, corporations and other groups.
The LLC dodge allows donors to form unlimited numbers of such entities, enabling virtually infinite contributions to candidates. Major developers, for instance, can use dozens of properties they own to establish separate LLCs, each of which can donate up to the state limit.
Political slates, particularly popular in Prince George’s County, play a similar role, allowing allied grouplets of candidates to pool virtually unlimited amounts of money and deploy it as they please — for instance to protect a single endangered incumbent — with no significant disclosure of how the money is spent or for whose benefit.
The state’s contribution limits have been unchanged since 1991, and some lawmakers are insisting on raising them. That’s reasonable — but only if tougher disclosure rules are adopted. At the moment transparency is so lacking that the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity ranked Maryland 40th among the states in vulnerability to corruption.
Mr. O’Malley has backed some significant reforms in the past — closing the LLC loophole, for instance — but without fighting hard enough for them. Now a legislative commission is formulating a set of reforms that could deal with slates, LLCs and other shortcomings in current law. The governor should throw his full support behind those efforts, and lawmakers should make 2013 Maryland’s year of campaign finance reform.