July 12, 2014

MONTGOMERY COUNTY has been buffeted for years by criticism — much of it justified — that developers and labor unions exercise outsize influence in local elections and, therefore, in the spending decisions made by elected officials who have benefited from those groups’ contributions. An antidote became possible last year when state lawmakers in Annapolis authorized localities to adopt their own versions of public campaign financing options, as the state did decades ago.

As the state’s biggest locality, Montgomery became the first to draft legislation to apply to its elections for county executive and County Council. The intent of the bill, unveiled this winter by Council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), is to offset the power of special interests by attracting more small donors to the political process, using the incentive of public matching funds.

The bill drafted by Mr. Andrews is a powerful argument for good government. It would help candidates with limited resources and without connections to special interests run for office, provided they could attract grass-roots support inside the county, while offering sufficiently generous incentives so that incumbents might opt into the system, which would be voluntary.

Any candidate who signed up for the public matching funds would have to agree to reject contributions from interest groups of any stripe and agree that individual contributions would be capped at $150. In return, a candidate would unlock substantial public funding.

For example, a candidate for county executive who could attract $50 contributions from 3,000 people — a total of $150,000 — would generate $900,000 in county matching funds. Taxpayers, who would foot the bill, would benefit by promoting candidates less beholden to well-heeled special interests. The benefits of Mr. Andrews’s bill were sufficiently self-evident that each member of the all-Democratic council signed on as a co-sponsor.

Doubts about the legislation arose after the June 24 primaries: Mr. Andrews lost his race for the party nomination for county executive, though he had a strong showing.

Council President Craig Rice said the landscape changed after the April Supreme Court decision sweeping aside caps on the total amount an individual can contribute to candidates.

In fact, the decision is a potent argument in favor of public financing of elections as a counterweight to the court’s green light to wealthy donors. It’s hard to think of a better time to empower small donors by leveraging public funding to amplify their influence.

Grumbles about the cost of public financing are also unfounded. Estimates are that Mr. Andrews’s bill might cost taxpayers as much as $12 million in a four-year election cycle. That comes to just $3 million annually, a pittance in the context of the county’s annual budget, which exceeds $4 billion, and annual revenue growth of some $150 million.

Mr. Andrews’s bill has been put off until the fall. It deserves a vote then and the support of the council.

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