Legislation to allow taxpayer-funded campaign financing for state legislative candidates has come before the Maryland General Assembly for over a decade, though no bill has ever made it beyond the senate floor.
Now a proposal that would pivot away from a statewide policy in favor of a county-by-county option is garnering favor among delegates eager to expand the public financing of elections at all levels of state government.
Such a localized approach could face legal and political roadblocks, and a specific bill has yet to be drafted. But supporters say a program could also help mitigate the influence of large donors in state politics and help propel Maryland toward statewide public financing for legislative races.
A bill “would provide a sort of ‘laboratory of democracy’ model, where counties that wanted to do this would have the ability, but other jurisdictions wouldn’t be forced to,” said Del. Jeffrey D. Waldstreicher (D-Montgomery). “Legislation would be purely enabling.”
Delegates in favor of a local option for state legislative races point to the recent embrace of public financing for both statewide and local campaigns.
In 2014, the Montgomery County Council unanimously voted to adopt partial public funding for elections, starting with the 2018 election cycle. Eleven million dollars have been appropriated from the county’s general fund to be used as matching funds for qualifying candidates, said David Crow, a fiscal projects manager in the Montgomery County Department of Finance.
The county executive could recommend additional funds be transferred on an as-needed basis.
At least 17 candidates have declared their interest in qualifying for matching funds, a process that requires them to get a certain number of donations of a certain amount. Council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large), who is running for county executive, has received his first matching-funds installment, according to his office. Incumbent Hans Riemer (D-At Large) has submitted a report to the state board of elections that is under review.
In June, the Howard County Council approved its own public finance system, to begin in the 2022 election cycle. And in 2014, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) became the first candidate in state history to win the gubernatorial election after participating in Maryland’s public financing system .
Before lawmakers can decide whether to propose a county-by-county option for legislative candidates, they must determine whether a local approach is legally viable. For one thing, not all legislative districts match up with county lines, so some candidates could seek office in neighboring jurisdictions that have taken different stances on offering matching funds.
Del. Marc A. Korman (D-Montgomery) in May contacted the Maryland Attorney General’s Office, asking for guidance on any potential obstacles. “It seemed prudent to ask the AG’s opinion up front rather than have issues like that raised later in the game,” Korman said.
Another unresolved issue is how the system would be funded. While a statewide option would kick all funding obligations to the General Assembly, counties would probably have to create their own pools of matching funds if lawmakers approved a localized bill.
Under the most recent proposal for a statewide option, funding would have been drawn from a general pot — the Fair Campaign Financing Fund — that also supports gubernatorial races. The bill, introduced in February, would have boosted revenue for the fund starting in 2019 through an annual additional appropriation of $1 million.
Taxpayers are also allowed to donate to the fund through a checkoff box on their tax filing forms. Fines incurred through the violation of election ethics laws are directed to the fund as well.
Montgomery County’s matching fund program is supported by county tax revenue.
Damon Effingham, legal and policy director for Common Cause Maryland said, he worries that a localized public-financing option would “leave behind” less wealthy counties that don’t want to tax their residents to create a funding pool for legislative races.
Robert Lipman, co-founder of MoCo Voters — a grass-roots group “committed to getting money out of county politics” — pushed hard for the Montgomery County campaign-finance program, and has become one of the staunchest supporters of a local option for state legislative candidates.
He acknowledged that not all counties may be equipped to fund state legislative races. But he said there is a high political cost when legislative candidates depend heavily on deep-pocketed special interest groups.
Lipman and delegates who support public financing say a local option could be one means of bringing about greater transparency and greater confidence in state government.
“We’ve got a lot of time to figure this out,” Waldstreicher said. “Many of these questions remain unanswered.”