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Md. Emphasizes Disclosure In Campaign Finance

ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) -- An extensive revamping of Maryland's campaign finance laws is raising donation limits for individuals, while emphasizing disclosure and enabling the state elections board to fine violators.

Those are just some of the main parts of the 63-page measure that passed in the last couple of hours of the Maryland General Assembly's legislative session, which ended Monday. The bill is the product of a commission that studied potential changes to campaign finance law, and it also includes new rules for super political action committees -- outside organizations that can collect unlimited contributions from corporations, unions and individuals.

"This completely overhauled the structure and enforcement and disclosure mechanisms in the state of Maryland," said Jared DeMarinis, director of the candidacy and campaign finance division for the Maryland State Board of Elections.

The bill is now at Gov. Martin O'Malley's office, where spokeswoman Raquel Guillory said it is under review.

If signed into law, the bill would increase donation amounts for the first time since 1991. For example, individual donation limits would rise to $6,000 from $4,000 in 2015, so the new limits wouldn't be in effect in next year's elections. A total amount for a four-year election cycle would jump to $24,000 from $10,000. However, a loophole in the law that enabled people to donate multiple times through limited liability corporations with ties to a single person would be been closed. Supporters say people who have found ways of getting around the limits in the past wouldn't be able to donate as much.

"While we don't like raising the limits, we do feel that the other reforms in the bill are so significant that the bill nets out to be a victory for Marylanders," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a government watch dog group.

The measure also would make changes in reporting requirements for independent expenditures, which advocate for or against a candidate but come from someone not associated with the candidate's campaign. The bill would change the law to make costs for modern campaign techniques such as email and text-message blasts count toward spending limits that would require reporting.

Super PACs would have to file with the board within 48 hours after spending $10,000 on campaign material in addition to filing campaign finance reports.

The bill also addresses what's known as "dark money" in campaign finance. The contributions come through organizations such as 501(c)(4)s and 527s. It can be hard for people to know who is behind political ads paid for by these groups. Under the bill, they would have to disclose the top five contributors.

"So you get a snapshot into who is behind that entity," DeMarinis said.

The measure also would change how candidates use slates, when two or more candidates come together to share fundraising and campaign expenses. Critics say the current system makes it difficult to track where money from slates ends up. A candidate would have to file necessary paperwork to be on the ballot to be on a slate. Also, while unlimited fund transfers can be made into a slate, only $24,000 in direct transfers would be able to come out of them.

"You're going to see money that goes into the slate that's actually going to be spent by the slate, rather than just as a mechanism to basically give it back to membership at different levels," DeMarinis said.

The bill also would allow for legislative caucus committees that can focus on electing people to one of the houses of the Legislature. The state elections board would develop regulations for the committees.

And the bill would revamp a disclosure law for people who do business with the state. Under current law, people who have government contracts of $100,000 and make a contribution of $500 or more have to make a disclosure. Under the bill, all businesses with a contract of $200,000 or more would be required to say so, whether they make contributions or not. The disclosure reports also would be made available online, instead of simply on paper at the state elections board.

For the first time, the elections board would have the authority to issue civil citations for strict liability offenses. Fines of up to $500 could be assessed for a list of lapses, such as failing to maintain a campaign bank account or detailed and accurate account books and records. Fines also could be levied for failing to report an authority line in campaign material or report all contributions and expenditures made.

"Now you know that you will be hit with fines, and I think we'll see much more careful adherence to our reporting requirements," Bevan-Dangel said.

The bill also would clear the way for local governments to have local funding of elections. Some local governments had expressed interest in the past but were not allowed to do so. The bill would allow them to move forward.

(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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