Lawmakers considered myriad campaign finance bills Thursday afternoon, including an attempt to repeal a decade-old Prince George’s County ban on developer contributions, a law to expand the state’s public financing program and a measure to add enforcement positions to the State Board of Elections.
The Prince George’s law, limiting developer and real estate donations made to county executives, came about following a major corruption scandal involving the then-County Executive Jack Johnson (D). Johnson had taken more than $1 million in bribes in exchange for helping developers secure funding for housing developments and was sentenced to seven years in prison.
In response, Johnson’s successor, Rushern L. Baker III (D), endorsed barring contributions from developers with pending projects, as a good government measure.
But the sponsor of the bill to remove the limitation, House Economic Matters Committee Chairman Dereck E. Davis (D-Prince George’s), said the county’s ways of doing business — and image — have changed.
“Quite frankly we felt like we needed to do something to restore public confidence,” he told the House Ways and Means Committee Thursday.
Davis works for Prince George’s County government when he isn’t performing his legislative duties.
“The current law was reactionary. It was a reactionary thing we did that I supported,” he said.
Politicians in Prince George’s County say the law is unfair because it places limits on a candidate’s ability to raise money — but only in Prince George’s County, a majority-black jurisdiction.
Prince George’s County Executive Angela D. Alsobrooks (D) said she supports turning over the county law, citing racial injustice — a shift from her neutral stance last year when Davis attempted to rescind the law for the first time.
The 2019 bill passed in the House but was bottled up in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, where another powerful chairman from Prince George’s County, Sen. Paul G. Pinsky (D) opposed the bill. Pinsky says he plans on doing so again this year.
“Do we make Prince George’s County like everybody else or do we make everybody else like Prince George’s County? I have no preference,” Davis told the committee. “Whatever the wisdom of the committee is, I am happy with.”
Davis said he just wants Prince George’s County on equal footing with the rest of the state.
Developers came out in strong opposition to the all-county bill.
“We don’t like the Prince George’s County law. We think that it singles out our industry, it implies that our government officials are dishonest, it implies that our industry is dishonest,” Robert Kaufman of the Maryland Building Industry Association testified. “As it is not fair in Prince George’s County, we do not want it to be extended to these different counties.”
Public financing, boosting enforcing division
On Thursday, legislators also considered another campaign finance bill — House Bill 1125 — which would expand Maryland’s public financing program to candidates other than the governor in statewide elections.
“Campaign finance is a big concern among Maryland residents,” said Del. Jessica Feldmark (D-Howard), the bill’s sponsor in the House. “As big money continues to dominate political fundraising, public skepticism and cynicism about our democracy grow.”
Maryland already has a Fair Campaign Financing Fund, but the bill would expand the program from gubernatorial tickets to attorney general and comptroller races. It also revises the matching provisions to a tiered matching structure in which smaller donations are matched with a greater multiplier, would prohibit corporate and political action committee contributions and add funding to the program.
“This program has been an amazing resource for candidates who may not be able to raise the money separately but could garner the support through having popular ideas that can get people to donate small contributions,” Larry Stafford of Progressive Maryland testified.
It would cost $7 million a year to fund the proposed revisions to the program.
Another bill (HB 1222) would help keep campaign finance law compliance under control.
The bill would create and fund two new positions for the State Board of Elections.
“Quite frankly our campaign finance desk is overloaded,” said Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery), the bill’s sponsor. She said the Board of Elections is regulating over 2,000 campaign committees that receive over $350 million in campaign donations, with only seven employees, and violations can go unchecked.