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Md Politics

County-by-county public financing for races is legal, Md. attorney general’s office says

By Rachel Siegel

August 28, 2017 at 9:24 PM

An attorney from the Maryland attorney general's office says it would be legal for the state to allow public financing for candidates on a county-by-county basis, clearing the way for the drafting of such a bill in the 2018 legislative session.

Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery) contacted the attorney general's office in May for guidance on whether a localized approach to public financing — as opposed to a statewide option — would hit constitutional roadblocks. A county-by-county approach was so novel that it left certain questions, such as how to handle legislative districts that don't match up with county lines, unanswered.

Korman called the office's opinion "good news" and said he will move forward with drafting a bill, which he and other advocates say would increase opportunities for candidates to run for office without relying on big individual or corporate donors.

Although Korman said he would prefer a statewide public financing option for legislative candidates — a proposal that has not advanced in past legislative sessions — he described a county-by-county program as a way to "inch closer to that goal."

In a letter earlier this month, Sandra Benson Brantley, counsel to the General Assembly, wrote that a local option would not violate the Equal Protection Clause or the First Amendment rights of candidates so long as all candidates running in a particular district have the same opportunity to use the public financing program. Korman said his bill will authorize public financing in multicounty districts only if all of the counties in that district have public financing programs.

There is evidence of growing support in parts of Maryland for publicly financed campaigns.

In 2014, the Montgomery County Council unanimously voted to adopt partial public financing for county executive and council candidates; several 2018 hopefuls are now seeking public matching funds by forgoing corporate or PAC contributions and collecting a certain number of small-dollar donations.

In June, the Howard County Council approved a public financing system, which will begin in the 2022 election cycle.

Opponents of public financing say the government should not be in the position of funding individual campaigns. Some also have expressed concern that a localized option would be unfair to candidates in poorer counties, which may be less willing to use tax revenue to generate funding pools for political campaigns.

Robert Lipman, co-founder of the advocacy group MoCo Voters, which advocates for reducing the role of big donors in politics, welcomed the idea of a county-by-county public finance option.

"Let's inch it forward little bit by little bit," Lipman said. "People will like it and they'll say, 'How can we expand on this?' "

Rachel graduated from Yale and is a reporting intern on the local transportation team.

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