After less than 10 minutes of debate, the Maryland Senate today killed the only campaign ethics legislation of this year's session without a vote on its merits.
By a 27-to-19 vote, the Senate approved a motion by Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery) to table a bill that would have limited businesses with state contracts to $100 in campaign contributions in state elections. Liberal senators denounced the action as "outrageous" and "shoddy."
"This is the only real ethics legislation we've considered this year," said Sen. Howard Denis (R-Montgomery), "and this is the first time we've had a motion like this. It's discourteous and an insult to the legislative process."
Levitan and Senate President James Clark (D-Howard) argued that the Senate did not have time to debate the sweeping measure, which had already passed the House and had become the object of intensive lobbying by utility companies and other special interests.
Minutes after the vote, Del. Luiz Simmons (R-Montgomery), the sponsor of the bill, angrily declared that Levitan's move to kill the measure proved him to be "the champion" of "every economic special interest in the state.
"I do not think there is an economic special interest that Sen. Levitan has not advanced this year," Simmons said. "I guess he could not resist the urge to get up and advance them all at once."
Nearly a dozen special interest lobbyists appeared at a Senate Committee hearing earlier this week to oppose the contributions bill. One of those lobbyists, explaining his opposition, remarked: "You can't do much with $100."
As the vote approached today, Allan Levey, the chairman of the state Republican Party, made several calls to senators urging them to oppose the bill. According to the senators, Levey said he was making his calls at the request of George Gephardt, the chairman of the political action committee of Baltimore Gas and Electric. Levey could not be reached for comment late today.
Simmons' bill would have applied to 116 companies that donated to 1978 campaigns and together do more than $1 billion a year in business with the state.
The companies, according to a study by Simmons, gave more than $300,000 to candidates for state and local officies, including $68,000 to Gov. Harry Hughes. Utility companies, which conducted much of the lobbying in the past several days, gave more than $20,000 to state campaigns, Simmons' research showed.
The measure would have prohibited companies from giving more than $100 in campaigns for state and local governments with which they had contracts. Under the legislation, businesses with local government contracts could contribute to statewide campaigns, but not to the local elections.
Last year, the bill passed the House, but was killed on a reconsideration vote, prompting freshman delegates to hold a leadership ethics proposal hostage in committee until the House leadership pledged to support the bill this year.
This year, the bill was introduced with House Speaker Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore City) as a sponsor, and passed the House easily two weeks ago.
Critics of the measure in the Senate said the bill was faulty because it allowed labor unions an advantage by not prohibiting their contributions to state campaigns. State labor unions lobbied heavily for the measure, they noted. On broader grounds, the proposal was also attacked for unfairly restricting the right of business to support political candidates.
However, none of the arguments for and against the bill, came up in the Senate today because of the quick vote to table.
"We could easily spend the rest of the session debating this bill, and we don't have time to do it adequately," said Levitan, in making his motion.