Opponents of public financing of elections in Maryland have restored to an unprecedented legislative maneuver in an effort to block a public vote on the issue in the full House of Delegates.
Seventy-five of the 141 House members signed a petition Wednesday asking that the bill never be brought to the floor for a formal vote. Members of the leadership appeared inclined to go along with the petition.
The petition was the brainchild of Del. Paul G. Weisengoff (D-Baltimore), who acknowledged that may legislators "simply don't want to vote on the issue this year."
Weisengoff is an outspoken opponent of public financing. Other legislators have, in the past, tried to avoid going on-the-record for or against the measure for fear of adverse constitutent reaction.
Weisengoff said he began the petition drive Monday because he feared that some opponents of compaign financing might vote for it "for appearances."
Normally, the committee that conducts hearings on a bill either gives it a favorable vote, which means it automatically does to the floor for debate and vote, or gives it an infavorable report, which kills it. But the two committees that considered public financing of elections failed to make either decision.
So it was agreed that their respective chairmen, Baltimore Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin of Ways and Means and Charles J. Krysiak of Constitution and Administrative Law, would jointly decide whether to bring the issue to the House floor. Like their committee members, the chairmen were sharply divided - Cardin a strong advocate, Krysiak a determined opponent.
But before they decide, Weisengoff acted. The chairman of the vote-heavy Baltimore city House delegation presented the petition to Cardin Wednesday. Although the petition has no official standing, House Speaker John Hanson Briscoe noted that "psychology" favors not forcing a vote on a question that more than half of the members opposed on a peition.
There is currently a public financing law on the books, but because it covers virtually every elective office in the state, it is considered totally unworkable for lack of money. Two proposals are now being considered. One would substantially limit the program and provide funding for it. Another would repeal it entirely. The petition, if followed, would prevent full house votes on both.
Del. Howard Needle (D-Baltimore County), a leading advocate of public financing, was angry Wednesday. "It's a demand dangerous precedent," he said. "The question deserves a vote." He said he hopes to convince some peition singers to remove their names.
Weisengoff, considered one of Annapolis' shrewdest legislative tacticians, said that he has the names of 10 more delegates to replace any who withdraw their names.
He said proponents have convinced newspapers and TV that it is a "reform" measure, a characterization disputed by Weisengoff.
The question as to whether the petition would be honored by the committees involved remains as yet unanswered. Proponents would still be able to submit their own petition with at least 15 names to bring the measure to the floor for what appears to be a certain death.