The Maryland Senate today resoundingly defeated an amendment to campaign finance legislation that would have restricted contributions by political action committees (PACs) to state and local political candidates.
On a 31-to-14 vote, the Senate rebuffed an attempt by Sen. Julian L. Lapides (D-Baltimore) to add the PAC limitation to a bill that would double the amount individuals and corporations may spend on candidates and campaigns. Lapides' amendment would have limited PAC contributions to $2,000 per candidate and $5,000 per election in both the primary and general elections, the same limits proposed for individuals and corporations in the bill.
Maryland's lack of limits on PAC contributions grew out of a 1977 bill that permits the transfer of funds among members of a political slate or between campaign committees, a loophole that includes PACs. Although some lawmakers have insisted the elimination of any limits on PAC contributions was an unintended consequence of that legislation, the General Assembly has so far refused to plug the loophole.
That reluctance was evident today as Lapides and a handful of his colleagues argued passionately but vainly that the growing influence of PACs is having a corrosive influence on the electoral process in Maryland.
A Senate committee has killed separate legislation that would have limited individual PAC contributions to each candidate to $1,000 per election and would have limited the overall amount any candidate could receive from all PACs to $20,000 per election. A similar bill is pending in a House committee.
Lapides, the cochairman of the legislature's Ethics Committee, said his amendment was designed to close "an outrageous loophole" in the campaign finance law that "permits the flagrant buying of elections."
According to data compiled by Maryland Common Cause, there were 50 registered PACs in Maryland in 1978, the election year that followed enactment of the legislation allowing unlimited PAC contributions. Five years later there were nearly 300 PACs in the state.
The top 10 spending PACs, contends Common Cause, spent just $150,000 during the 1978 election, but nearly $550,000 four years later.
"PACs have really proliferated since the loophole opened up," said Common Cause Executive Director Ricki Wadsworth today. "It's clear the loophole has encouraged them."
Among those arguing for the PAC limitation today was Sen. Stewart Bainum Jr. (D-Montgomery), one of the wealthiest members of the Senate, who was greeted with loud laughter when he rose to speak. "We are allowing special interest money to make a mockery of elections," said Bainum, who in the past has spent large amounts of his own money on his campaigns.
Adding some poignancy to today's debate was an account in Wednesday's Baltimore Evening Sun of one former lobbyist's decision to quit because of repeated demands by legislators for campaign contributions.
John Hanson Briscoe, a former speaker of the Maryland House of Delegates who represented truckers, state police and chiropractors during his four years as a lobbyist, said he quit after losing the "stomach" for flagrant appeals for contributions that he said verged "on the brink of impropriety."