Lawmakers in Annapolis are moving to tighten up campaign reporting requirements for the November referendum on legalizing slot machines, as both sides gird for what's expected to be a free-spending battle to win voters.
The Senate heard two bills last week that would expand and clarify the mandates for groups and businesses to report their expenditures on either side of the slots debate.
When legislators decided in last fall's special session to put the question of legalizing slots to a referendum, they also took a step to give voters more information about how much was being spent, and by whom, to influence the outcome.
The slots legislation included a provision requiring any corporation that spends more than $10,000 on campaign materials to file reports with the state Board of Elections before and after the vote Nov. 4.
But some legislators say they have since realized that the campaign-spending disclosure provisions tacked onto the end of the 74-page bill leave potential loopholes.
"We wanted to make sure we were casting a wider net," said Sen. Richard Madaleno, a Montgomery County Democrat who is sponsoring one of the reporting bills. He voted for the slots referendum last fall.
Maryland law does not limit how much money can be donated to a group fighting for or against a ballot question. There are no limits on spending, either.
"We just wanted to make sure the public gets a sense of who's paying on both sides," Madaleno said.
His bill, which had a hearing Wednesday, would broaden the current reporting requirement for corporations to include other types of business entities, including partnerships, limited liability companies and investment trusts.
It also would require reporting any expenditures, not just spending on "campaign materials," such as advertising, broadcast commercials and fliers, which were covered by the law passed last fall.
A second bill, introduced by Sen. Roy P. Dyson, a Democrat from Southern Maryland, would require businesses to notify the Board of Elections within seven days of spending more than $10,000 on the referendum campaign.
Elections officials said the measure, heard Friday, would help them keep track of what groups should be filing spending reports in the weeks leading up to and after the referendum.
"If they fail to follow the law, we know who to give a call to," said Linda H. Lamone, state administrator of elections.
"We have to tweak what our colleagues did so we can get reports in time," said Dyson, who opposed the slots legislation last fall.
Besides targeting corporate spending, lawmakers voted last fall to require any committee formed to influence votes on the slots referendum to file an extra spending report Oct. 10, four weeks before the Nov. 4 election.
Other reports are due two weeks before and two weeks after the vote, said Jared DeMarinis, candidacy and campaign finance director for the Board of Elections.
Corporations are required to file the same reports that campaign committees must file under the slots referendum law adopted last fall. But the law spells out only that they must disclose spending above $10,000 on advertising, fliers and other campaign material.
Madaleno said the disclosure requirement was written to encompass the possibility that big-money interests might get into the slots campaign on either side.
"There could be gambling interests in Atlantic City who are anxious not to have slot machines in Maryland," Madaleno said. "So we want to know who's paying for the campaigns."
Opponents of slot machine gambling say they have no problem with tightening the spending reporting, though at least one scoffs at what he calls an "urban legend" that out-of-state gambling interests could get involved in Maryland's referendum campaign.
Aaron Meisner, coordinating chairman of StopSlots Maryland, said, "Everybody's always explaining to me how that's going to happen, and yet in all the years we've been fighting this fight, I've never had a single conversation with anyone from the gambling industry inside or outside the state about supporting our side."
"I don't think anyone's going to give us $10,000," said W. Minor Carter, lobbyist for StopSlots.
While the anti-slots forces are counting on raising funds from individuals opposed to more gambling in the state, Carter acknowledged that StopSlots might spend millions of dollars to get its message to voters.
"One of our guys thinks it's a $3 million job, and another said $7 million," Carter said.
Gambling ballot measures in other states have resulted in hefty contributions to groups campaigning for and against them. More than $28 million poured into a 2006 Ohio campaign, according to a study, and nearly $23 million into a ballot fight in Rhode Island.