LAST YEAR, Maryland candidates for public office at the state level raised $93.6 million for their campaigns, up 69 percent from 2002, the previous gubernatorial election year. The scramble for cash required to mount a plausible race for the state Senate or House of Delegates doubtless discourages potential candidates, monopolizes the time of those who do run and builds cynicism in voters' views of their elected officials. So why isn't public financing of elections a hotter issue in Annapolis?
The common excuse is cost. The Senate president, Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr. (D-Calvert), has declared himself opposed to spending taxpayers' dollars on politicians. That's a fine populist sentiment, but in fact the cost of a sensible public financing proposal for legislative races (not statewide offices) is modest -- an estimated $28 million in the course of a four-year election cycle. A bill before the General Assembly is modeled on rules already working well in Maine and Arizona. And public funding's advocates make the not implausible argument that the scheme would pay for itself soon enough as lawmakers, less beholden to special interests and corporate contributors, trimmed pork-barrel spending and tax breaks for the favored few.
Similar legislation passed the House last year. Under its terms, to become eligible for public funding candidates would first prove their viability by collecting several hundred small contributions -- $5 or more -- in a legislative district. If they accepted public funding, House candidates in contested races would then be eligible for $80,000 in public funds and pledge to spend no more; Senate candidates in contested races would qualify for $100,000. The system would be completely voluntary. Candidates could opt out, forgo the state allotment, and proceed to raise and spend money without limit; if they did so, however, their opponents who opted in would be compensated with additional state funding.
Incumbents are unlikely to vote for the measure if they believe it will cost them their jobs. But there is so far little evidence of that outcome. In Arizona and Maine, where public financing has been in place since 2002, it has resulted in more contested races -- but no loosening of incumbents' grasp. In both states, where growing numbers of candidates have chosen to take public financing, upward of 90 percent of incumbents seeking reelection won their races last year. But even without altering the incumbent-favoring dynamics of state elections, there is every reason to think that the result -- a legislature whose members owe less to entrenched, deep-pocketed interests -- will be a fairer, more impartial and better government.