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Campaign finance lobbyists want changes

December 24, 2002|by LAURA ERNDE

laurae@herald-mail.com

WASHINGTON COUNTY - Maryland House Speaker Casper R. Taylor Jr. sent Christmas cards each year to his friends and political supporters.

His substantial campaign fund would pick up the tab, which ranged from $5,000 to $7,000.

Taylor also used campaign contributions to buy more than $13,000 in gifts and flowers during the past four years, records filed with the Maryland State Election Board show.

While there's nothing illegal about the expenditures, they illustrate a lack of regulation in that area, campaign finance law reformers say.

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"It's a lot money spent on Christmas and Valentines. I don't think it's unusual, but it certainly points out a gray area in the law," said James Browning of Common Cause, a nonprofit citizens' lobbying organization.

Generally, campaign fund expenditures must be election related, which means they must "enhance the candidate's election chances and must not be incurred if there is no potential candidacy," according to Ross Goldstein, director of the division of candidacy and campaign finance.

Expenditures may not be disbursed for personal use, he said.

Most of the time, lawmakers who have the largest campaign accounts are powerful incumbents who have the least amount of election competition, said Sean Dobson of Progressive Maryland, another campaign finance watchdog group.

"That begs the question - If they're not in a competitive election, how do they spend their money?" he said.

Dobson's organization is embarking on a study that attempts to answer that question and determine how much campaign money goes for actual campaign expenses and how much is spent simply furthering political careers.

Taylor amassed $867,870 over the last four years, which was more than any other single Maryland lawmaker, according to state reports.

The Allegany County Democrat had little opposition until this past election, when he was narrowly defeated by Clear Spring Republican LeRoy E. Myers Jr.

Taylor's hefty campaign account allowed him to donate to local charities and give substantial amounts to other lawmakers.

Both Taylor and Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller, D-Prince George's, "brilliantly exploited" a loophole in the law that allows limitless contributions to candidate slates, Browning said.

Taylor declined to comment specifically on his campaign finance report, but said Maryland is among those states with the toughest campaign finance laws.

"Generally speaking, Maryland's campaign finance laws and public ethics laws are recognized as some of the more strict in the nation," Taylor said.

A statewide commission is studying public financing of campaigns in Maryland, Dobson said.

The commission is seeking an extension of its Dec. 31 deadline to report to the legislature, he said.

States that have public financing of campaigns generally have stricter rules on how the money is spent, he said.

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