HOWEVER UNCOMFORTABLE Maryland's state lawmakers may become when campaign money and political influence are mentioned in the same breath they've so far avoided enacting an important [WORD ILLEGIBLE] aimed at muffling the sounds of big money at [WORD ILLEGIBLE] time. Unless members of the House of Delegates are willing to go on record in favor of this measure - instead of playing legislative games to avoid any vote - it looks as if the campaign-money scramble will be fierce next year.
The situation is this: Three years ago, the Assembly enacted a campaign financing law providing for partial public financing of all state and county elections beginning in 1978. Then, two years ago, a plan to make adequate funds available died. Last year, there was another plan, to insure some public funds and to make the program consistent with a Supreme Court decision on campaign expenditure limits. It didn't make it either.
This year, the measure's chief sponsor has been Del. Bejnamin L. Cardin (D-Baltimore), chairman of The House Ways and Means Committee. The bill, which also enjoys the support of legislators from Montgomery and Prince George's counties, would provide money from the general fund to candidates for the top four state offices: governor, lieutenant governor, comptroller and attorney general. Candidates for governor could obtain up to $500,000 in [WORD ILLEGIBLE] funds for each contest; correspondingly lower amounts would go to candidates for the lesser offices. Under existing law, Marylanders are permitted to make constributions of up to $2 to a public fund by adding the amount to their state income tax returns.
But last week, the bill failed in two committees. The vote in Ways and Means was 12 to 12, and in the Constitutional and Administrative Law Committee, 11 to 12. The only hope then was that measure would be brought out for a vote by the full House. Since the committee votes were so close, it seemed only right that every member of the House should be given the opportunity to vote on it.
It still seems only right - but now there's a new rub. Opponents of the bill and those who'd just as soon duck the issue have come up with a gimmick: a petition signed by 75 of the 141 House members, asking that the bill not be brought to the floor for a vote. This maneuver is the handiwork of Del. Paul G. Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), who at least admits he opposes the bill. But as Common Cause lobbyist Lee Perlman noted, the move "obfuscates accountability" by letting the bill die without a recorded vote.
What are the signers afraid of? Do they suspect, as we do, that many of theirconstituents don't like the way big-money contributors influence campaigns and candidates in the state? Are they nervous about the reputation of Maryland politicans generally? Or are they content just to let things go along as they have?
The bill ought be brought to the floor for a vote. To be sure, this would open up the possibility of attempts to repeal the original 1974 law outright. But at least the people of Maryland would have a record of where their legislators stand on the important relationship of money and politics in the state. The Assembly should enact the reasonable compromise bill and give the original spending-limit provisions a chance to work next year.