A state bill that would have removed some fundraising restrictions for Prince George’s county executives died in the General Assembly session that ended this week — blocked by senators from the county who considered it a step backward in terms of good-government reforms.
The bill would have repealed statutes prohibiting developers with pending projects in Prince George’s from donating to county executives running for office or slates including them.
Supporters of the bill said those restrictions hurt then-County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) when he ran for governor last year and will create a similarly uneven playing field for executives who run in the future because other counties do not have the same restrictions.
The measure passed by a wide margin in the House of Delegates, where delegates from Prince George’s gave it their backing. But it died in the Senate after county lawmakers in that chamber said the bill would send the wrong message to residents.
“We have to clean up any appearance of conflicts of interest,” said Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D-Prince George’s), who chairs the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. “When you are overseeing zoning and development in the county, whether it is conscious or unconscious, the appearance is of pay to play.”
The bill never received a vote in Pinsky’s committee, effectively killing it. He said he made clear to the county delegation in Annapolis that he was personally opposed to the bill, and he did not receive a letter from other Prince George’s senators supporting it.
Baker led the effort nine years ago to bar slates including county executives and council members from receiving developer donations after his predecessor, Jack B. Johnson, was arrested on public corruption charges.
County executives and council members were already prohibited from receiving funds directly from developers. But in Prince George’s, fundraising is often done through slates formed by groups of local candidates.
Del. Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s) wrote the bill to roll back some of those restrictions for county executives, leaving the prohibitions in place for council members.
He said he always knew perception would be an issue. But that concern, he said, is misplaced.
Johnson was arrested for taking more than $1 million in bribes, not because of any campaign finance violations, Davis points out. And it is county council members, not county executives, who handle land-use decisions.
“There is one set of rules for Prince George’s, and a different set for the rest of the state,” Davis said. “Are we making a statement about Prince George’s relative to the rest of the state? I think the rules need to be uniformly applied.”
Pinsky said he listened to that argument and understands that some people think the Prince George’s law contributed to lackluster fundraising by Baker, who had less than half as much cash on hand as former NAACP chief Ben Jealous, the eventual nominee, days before the Democratic primary.
Pinsky also understands that some think the prohibitions could have the same effect on first-term County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D), considered a possible gubernatorial contender in 2022.
Alsobrooks’s office did not take a position on the bill.
“Personally, I think there is a bigger issue, and it’s that our county needs to be seen as working for the people,” said Pinsky, a longtime supporter of public financing for campaigns.
In Prince George’s, the council last year approved legislation to create a public financing system for local candidates. But the option will not be implemented until 2026.