Montco explores election-fund law

Montgomery County will explore establishing its own campaign finance reform law after Philadelphia's court victory last week upholding contribution limits in the city.

Any limits imposed by the Board of Commissioners would be the first in the state outside of Philadelphia, according to the Pennsylvania Association of Counties.

"If this is the way for people to have confidence in their government, I'm for it," said Thomas Ellis, the Republican commissioner who had proposed a committee to study campaign finance.

A number of counties across the country, including Los Angeles and Ventura Counties in California and Suffolk County in New York, have passed their own campaign finance reforms, according to the National Association of Counties.

Ellis said that any reforms resulting from the committee's recommendations would not take effect until 2008, meaning it won't affect the high-profile battle for control of county government. Republican Jim Matthews is teamed with District Attorney Bruce Castor against Democrats Ruth Damsker and Joseph Hoeffel, former U.S. congressman and county commissioner.

That race is expected to be the most expensive in county history, as Democrats attempt to win a majority for the first time in a century. Each side is expected to spend $1 million or more in the commissioners race; the Democrats have never raised more than the $225,000 they raised in the unsuccessful 2003 commissioners race.

At its weekly meeting yesterday, the commissioners appointed a bipartisan committee to research the issue. Ellis did not discuss what type of limits might be imposed. None exists now.

Investigating the legality of setting spending limits for the county's 62 municipalities, in addition to countywide campaigns, is to be one of the committee's assignments.

Last week, Philadelphia won a surprising - but not final - victory preserving the city's 2003 campaign reforms that restrict individual campaign gifts to $5,000 and political committees to $20,000.

The state Commonwealth Court's 6-1 ruling denying a challenge to the law will have to survive a Supreme Court review. If it fails, Montgomery County's effort would be moot, Ellis said.

In March, Gov. Rendell proposed a sweeping list of reforms including limits for statewide races - there currently are none - and authorization for local governments to impose even stricter guidelines. Ellis said such a law would also supersede any county law, but added that he didn't expect Rendell's proposals to be enacted by the state legislature.

Ellis himself is not running for reelection after failing to win his party's endorsement.

The committee will hold public hearings but will otherwise meet in private, Ellis said.

County Democratic Party chairman Marcel Groen said Ellis was trying to improve his political legacy at a time when his political career "is in a bad place."

"He's trying to make a splash for himself with things that should have been happening all along," Groen said.

Committee members are Paul Bartle, a Republican lawyer and chairman of the Board of Commissioners from 1983 through 1991; Carolyn Carluccio, a Republican and deputy county solicitor; and Andrew B. Cantor, a Democratic lawyer and member of the Montgomery County Election Board.


Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 610-313-8173 or jshields@phillynews.com.