Montgomery County Council member Phil Andrews’s bill to establish the region’s first system of public financing for local elections got a strong rollout Monday as all eight of his colleagues signed on as co-sponsors.
The legislation, dubbed by some advocates the “clean elections bill,” will be formally introduced Tuesday. It would leverage small individual contributions of up to $150 with a system of matching funds. Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg), a candidate in the June Democratic primary for county executive, said the objectives are to draw more small donors into the county’s political process and enable candidates with limited resources to mount competitive campaigns for county council or county executive.
The system would be voluntary. Candidates who don’t opt in would be able to raise funds under the established rules. If approved, the system would not be effective until the county’s 2018 election cycle.
Those opting into the public system would have to raise “seed money” to qualify: $40,000 for a county executive candidate, $20,000 for an at-large council candidate, $10,000 for a district council seat. The maximum individual donation would be $150. No PAC money or corporate donations would be allowed.
Once a candidate met the threshold, matches would kick in, with the first $50 from each donor generating the most value. A candidate for county executive, for example, would have that $50 donation matched at a 6-to-1 ratio. The second $50 from that person would be matched at 4-to-1, a third at 2-to-1.
It means, in theory at least, that a candidate for county executive who finds 3,000 people to donate $50 each (for a total of $150,000) could generate $900,000 with the 6-to-1 match. Or, 1,800 donors who pay $100 ($180,000) could bring the same result. In that instance, the first $50 of each individual donation would grow to $540,000 with the 6-1 match. The second $50, matched at 4-to-1 would yield $360,000 for a total of $900,000.
At a Monday morning news conference, Andrews was flanked by four council members — George Leventhal (D-At Large), Hans Riemer (D-At Large), Marc Elrich (D-At Large) and Council President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) — who spoke favorably about the bill. Andrews said council members Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda), who was not present, was also a co-sponsor, as was Nancy Navarro (D-Midcounty).
Shortly after the news briefing ended, word came that council members Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) and new member Cherri Branson (D-Silver Spring) — who earlier in the day had expressed doubts about the bill’s ability to withstand legal challenges — also signed on.
The bill also enjoys broad support from the state’s biggest progressive groups. Andrews was joined Monday by representatives of Common Cause Maryland, ACLU of Maryland, Progressive Maryland, Progressive Neighbors and the Sierra Club.
They all pressed the same basic point: In a political system awash in special interest cash, small donors need an opportunity to exert more influence.
“Public funding is the only way we can make sure that citizens of our county . . . get a voice back in our campaigns, said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, a post Andrews held before his election to the council.
Leventhal said an option to seek public financing would free up significant amounts of time he now devotes to fundraising.
“Every minute I spend on the phone asking for money is a minute I can’t spend studying the issues or meeting with constituents,” he said.
Public financing of elections has been a part of presidential campaigns, and some state elections, for many years. A handful of localities, including New York City, also offer some form of public financing. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly included in its campaign-finance law a provision to allow counties to set up their own system. If the legislation passes, Montgomery would be the first.
But the broad support by no means assures passage of the bill as is.
A public hearing is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. March 4 in council chambers. Several key constituencies have yet to be publicly heard from, especially the developer community and public employee unions, both of which invest significant sums in county elections.
Andrews is especially unpopular with the unions — including the Municipal and County Government Employees Organization (UFCW Local 1994) and the International Association of Firefighters Local 1664 — because of his past opposition to the size of negotiated pay packages and other issues.
There are also important issues yet to be worked out, such as the cost of such a system, which Andrews estimates at $3 million to $4 million a year. There is also the question of whether candidates opting into the public-finance system would be able to lend money to themselves, as is a frequent practice under the current setup.
Rice, the council president, says he supports the bill but is also cautious: “The devil is in the details.”