Gov.-elect Larry Hogan (R) this month became the first candidate in Maryland history to win a gubernatorial election while participating in the state’s public financing system. The question now is whether he’ll be the last.
The public fund — from which Hogan drew close to $3 million — is almost depleted, and no one has put forward a viable plan to replenish it.
Only gubernatorial candidates can use the fund, which was built up over many years through a voluntary income-tax form checkoff.
Until the 2014 campaign, the fund had not been tapped in two decades. Candidates were reluctant to take the public money because doing so requires them to limit their spending. Because nobody was using the fund, lawmakers scrapped the income-tax checkoff in 2010.
Longtime advocates of publicly financed campaigns say they’re hopeful Hogan will champion their cause, especially since he benefited from it.
But some note that Hogan has promised to cut spending, and may be reluctant to pump more money into the system. They also say that as a sitting governor, he should have no problem raising money privately for a reelection bid.
Hogan declined to comment. But a key ally said he expects the governor-elect will be committed to making the public-financing system workable, even if it’s no longer advantageous for him to use it.
“As a sitting governor, you have all sorts of people interested in giving you money,” said Joe Cluster, executive director of the Maryland Republican Party. He predicted that Hogan will come up with some way to let future candidates have the same opportunity he did.
Hogan was one of two candidates who participated in Maryland’s public financing program this year. Del. Heather R. Mizeur (D-Montgomery) qualified for $783,429 in matching funds during her unsuccessful bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Hogan received $332,051 in matching funds during the primary, and a $2.6 million grant to run in the general election against Lt. Gov. Anthony G. Brown (D).
During his race, Hogan touted the fund as an important equalizer for “grass-roots” campaigns running against “entrenched incumbent machines.” He said he would support rebuilding the fund through a reinstated tax-form checkoff.
It would probably take many years to rebuild the fund using the checkoff, however, and even longer to make it large enough to underwrite legislative and other statewide races in Maryland — something that public financing advocates have sought for years.
Under the state’s old checkoff system, taxpayers could volunteer to either add to the money they owed in taxes or take a smaller refund to contribute to public campaign financing. In its best year, the fund received $183,760, according to state election officials. Some years, it received far less.
To ensure that two gubernatorial candidates could be fully funded in the 2018 election, the state fund would need about $8 million more, said Jared DeMarinis, director of candidacy and campaign finance for the Maryland State Board of Elections.
The fund was only sufficient this year for Hogan and Mizeur because it had grown for 20 years without being tapped.
Lawmakers who support public financing — mostly Democrats — have begun contemplating other sources of money.
One idea is to steer all election-related fines imposed by the state into the fund. That could add $200,000 a year, DeMarinis said. Fine money currently flows into Maryland’s general fund budget.
Montgomery County recently adopted a public financing system for its 2018 county executive and council races. The money for that program will come from the county’s general fund budget.
Cluster, the state GOP director, said Republicans would prefer not to appropriate general tax revenue to the state fund and would rather come up with some other source.
Del. Samuel I. Rosenberg (D-Baltimore), who supports public financing, said he would be surprised if election reforms become a spending priority for Hogan and lawmakers, given the current anti-tax environment. “If we’re going to find new sources of revenue in this term, my sense is it’s going to go to other things,” Rosenberg said.
House Minority Whip Kathy Szeliga (R-Baltimore County) said she thinks a broader cross-section of Marylanders might participate in a checkoff than in the past, since both Republican and Democratic candidates benefited this year from the public financing fund.
“You’ve got more public awareness now that both parties have used it,” she said.
Szeliga, who sits on the House Appropriations Committee, said there could also be “an appetite for finding some other ways to get money into that account.”
Hogan’s campaign spent about $4.3 million from January, when he entered the race, through Election Day. About $2.9 million came from the state’s public financing fund. Brown’s campaign spent more than $15 million during the same stretch, according to a Washington Post analysis of campaign finance reports.
Brown and Hogan were aided during the general election by their respective state parties and by national governor’s groups. The state parties paid for mailers and radio and television time. The national groups aired television commercials that sought to discredit the other party’s candidate.
The outside help was particularly important to Hogan, who reported more than $1.4 million in in-kind contributions from the Maryland Republican Party.
Because of public-financing rules, Hogan’s campaign was not allowed to raise money during the general election. But Hogan was free to help raise money for the state Republican Party.
Del. Eric G. Luedtke (D-Montgomery) said lawmakers need to take a broad look at the way campaigns are financed, with an aim toward leveling the playing field.
“Do we want to make elections more fair or not?” Luedtke said. “I hope that Governor -elect Hogan will champion the issue. He proved the system can work.”