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Campaign finance bill moves forward in Prince George’s after dramatic meeting

Prince George’s County Council Chair Dannielle M. Glaros adjourned Tuesday’s meeting with a motion to introduce a public finance bill still on the table. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post)

A bill to create a public financing system for local political races in Prince George’s County advanced this week during a dramatic council meeting that was abruptly adjourned by Chair ­Dannielle M. Glaros and then restarted after one of her colleagues was elected temporary chair.

The bill was proposed in January but never voted on by the public safety and fiscal management committee because of concerns that the committee’s chair, Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6), had about its fiscal impact.

Although progressive groups say offering public matching funds to candidates can level the playing field between newcomers and better-connected incumbents, Davis said he has “a lot of concerns about spending taxpayer money for political campaigns.”

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On Tuesday, the last day a bill could be introduced and have a reasonable chance of passage this session, sponsor Mary A. Lehman (D-District 1) made a final attempt to move the bill out of Davis’s committee.

Glaros (D-District 3) cast the deciding vote against Lehman’s motion, saying there had not been enough discussion and analysis on the “technical piece of legislation.” Council member Karen R. Toles (D-District 7) then introduced a new bill, similar in substance to Lehman’s bill, but Glaros adjourned the meeting without a vote.

Glaros, Davis and Vice Chair Todd Turner (D-District 4) then walked out of the session, as Toles asked them not to leave, saying she had a motion on the floor.

After consulting with county attorneys, the six remaining council members reconvened and elected Mel Franklin (D-District 9) as the chair pro tem. Toles again introduced her bill.

At one point, Glaros walked back into the room. After some awkward shuffling of the microphone, Franklin continued leading the meeting. The council members voted 5-2 in favor of moving the new public finance bill straight to introduction, meaning it will be the subject of a public hearing Oct. 23 and will then be considered by the full council.

“It was unusual, but that’s why we have rules to address unusual situations,” Franklin said. “This bill empowers everyday residents to have more of a say in the political process.”

Lehman said, “Democracy is messy and yesterday was an example of that. . . . But I’m pleased the bill is moving forward.”

She said the program, which would create a system of public matching funds for donations up to $150, is about “the idea that we need more people rather than fewer people participating in the electoral process.”

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The program would mirror one that was implemented this year in Montgomery County and efforts that have been approved but not yet launched in the District and Howard County. Candidates who opt into the program must agree not to accept donations exceeding $250.

The program does not yet have a fiscal impact note from county analysts. The Fair Elections Maryland Coalition, composed of various progressive groups in the state, estimates the annual cost would be $1.5 million.

In Montgomery County, a public finance system approved in 2014 was used for the first time in this year’s primary, contributing to an unprecedented number of County Council candidates. Council member Marc Elrich (At Large), the winner of the Democratic primary for county executive, used the public finance system, as did the four winners of the Democratic primary for at-large council seats.

The Howard County Council has approved a public financing system that begins in the 2022 election cycle, and D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) signed a law in March creating a public financing program that begins in 2020.

To qualify for the program in Prince George’s, a candidate for county executive would have to collect 500 qualifying contributions of $150 or less; at-large council candidates would have to collect 250 contributions; and district council candidates would have to collect 150 contributions.

Qualified candidates for county executive or council would receive $7 for each dollar of a qualified contribution up to $25, $5 for each dollar received for the next $50 and $1 for each dollar received for the next $75.