Uncertain future for bill that would offer public financing in Montgomery elections

The bill that would establish partial public financing of political campaigns in Montgomery County was enthusiastically welcomed when Council member Phil Andrews introduced it in February.

Council President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty), who closely controls which bills are put on the agenda for final action, cautioned that some details needed to be resolved. But he sent a strong message that the council was prepared to act on the proposal, which would provide matching funds for candidates who raised a certain amount in small individual donations.

“I think this is a great bill that puts us in the right direction,” said Rice, who joined all seven other council members as co-sponsors.

Five months later, however, the bill’s future — at least in its current form — seems far less certain, with Rice and other county lawmakers raising a series of red flags. Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville) originally hoped to bring the measure to the council before budget deliberations in the spring, and then before summer recess at the end of July. It will now be fall at the earliest before the bill starts to move through the legislative pipeline.

The bill — the first of its kind for any Maryland county — is intended to help broaden participation in campaigns by enabling candidates to run competitive races even if they don’t have access to big contributions from interest groups or deep-pocketed donors.

In a meeting with reporters last week, Rice expressed concern about the measure’s potential cost — estimated at $9 million to $13 million per election cycle. Rice also raised the possibility that candidates could receive public funding but still benefit from independent expenditures by unions and the development industry — groups that traditionally are the biggest contributors to county campaigns.

He said he was particularly concerned about the effect of the April decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in McCutcheon v. FEC , which struck down limits on the total amount that a donor can contribute to candidates and political action committees.

“McCutcheon changes the whole landscape, from my perspective,” Rice said.

Andrews said Rice’s concern about McCutcheon was “not valid,” because the public financing bill would establish an alternative to large individual donations for potential candidates with limited funds.

“You can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s not going to solve every problem in the campaign finance system,” said Andrews, who took little to no money from unions or developers during his four council campaigns and his unsuccessful bid for county executive in last month’s Democratic primary.

In that race, Andrews was outspent by incumbent Isiah Leggett — the winner — by a margin of nearly 10 to 1.

Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said Andrews’s bill is attractive because it would mean candidates could devote less time to raising money. But she added that she is not sure it would increase the competitiveness of campaigns.

“I don't think money has held people back,” she said. “Did Phil lose the election because of a lack of money? I don’t think so. I think Ike [Leggett] was viewed as the better choice.”

There are purely political factors at play as well. The measure essentially asks a group of incumbents to change a system that has worked pretty well for them. And although Andrews said he has not made any decisions about his future, he might make another run for executive in 2018. Other council members who are eyeing that job will have to decide whether passing the bill as written might give Andrews an unacceptable leg up.

Under his proposal, candidates seeking public funds — the system is voluntary — must raise “seed money” in amounts no larger than $150. Aspirants for county executive have to raise $40,000 with at least 500 contributions; at-large council hopefuls would need at least 250 donations totaling $20,000; and those interested in district council seats would need to raise $10,000 with a minimum of 125 donations.

No PAC or corporate money would be allowed.

The sliding scale of matching funds is designed to encourage candidates to collect as many small donations as possible. A county executive candidate, for example, would have the first $50 from a donor matched at a 6-to-1 ratio, generating $300. The second $50 would be matched at 4 to 1, the third at 2 to 1. It means that a $150 contribution would yield $600.

The bill caps the amount of public money any candidate could receive: $750,000 for county executive, $250,000 for an at-large candidate and $125,000 for a district seat contender. But candidates opting in to the public system are allowed to raise unlimited amounts of small contributions ($150 and under).

Other members voiced support but said there probably will be changes to the bill, possibly including the scale for matching funds or an increase in the threshold for qualifying.

“I think there’s still quite a bit of appetite for the concept,” said Council member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County), chair of the council’s government operations committee, which must take up the bill before it reaches the full council. “I just think it may not be the current iteration that we pass.”

Public financing of elections has been used in one form or another in presidential and state campaigns for more than four decades. Maryland has offered 1-to-1 matching funds for primary and general election candidates for governor and lieutenant governor since 1973. Democratic gubernatorial candidate Heather Mizeur became the first aspirant since 1994 to opt in to the public system.

But there is no firm consensus among researchers about public financing’s effects. A 2003 Government Accountability Office study, updated in 2010, found that state legislative races in Maine and Arizona were more competitive under public financing — meaning the margins of victory among candidates were smaller. But the GAO said it could not directly attribute the change to the new system. There was no difference in the average number of candidates per race.

In Connecticut, according to one study, 77 percent of successful legislative candidates in 2012 used the state’s system of partial public financing. The proportion of women and Latinos holding seats has increased since the public financing system was enacted.

Bill Turque, who covers Montgomery County government and politics, has spent more than thirty years as a reporter and editor for The Washington Post, Newsweek, the Dallas Times Herald and The Kansas City Star.
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