The Montgomery County Council, seeking to draw more small, individual donors into campaigns and limit the influence of special-interest money, voted unanimously Tuesday to establish partial public funding for elections.
The measure will allow eligible candidates for county executive and council to leverage contributions of up to $150 through a system of matching public funds. Candidates opting to enter the financing program will be barred from taking corporate or PAC contributions.
A spokesman for County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) said he was prepared to sign the bill, which would be in place for Montgomery’s 2018 election cycle.
Montgomery County joins about half of the 50 states — including Maryland — and a handful of cities that offer some form of taxpayer subsidy to candidates. Maryland lawmakers included a public-funding option for counties in the campaign finance bill passed in 2013. Montgomery is the first county to adopt it.
“What we’re doing is creating a 21st-century model for public financing,” said council member Phil Andrews (D-Rockville-Gaithersburg), the bill’s chief architect, who spent more than a decade working with legislators in Annapolis to enact legislation authorizing public finance of campaigns. The council bill went through 16 drafts before a final version was hammered out.
Andrews, who has accepted virtually no corporate or PAC money in his four council campaigns and an unsuccessful Democratic primary bid for county executive earlier this year, said he views public matching funds as a critical counterweight to the dominance of developer and union money in county campaigns.
“It doesn’t take money out of politics, but it helps push big money to the side,” said Andrews, who will step down from the council in December.
Candidates who opt into the voluntary system will have the first $50 of each individual’s contribution matched at the highest rate: 6-to-1 for county executive candidates and 4-to-1 for council contenders. The next $50 increments would be matched at lower ratios.
In other words, a candidate for county executive who collected $50 donations from three people would receive $900 in matching money. One separate contribution of $150 would be worth $600.
The bill would limit public contributions to county executive candidates to $1.5 million ($750,000 each for the primary and the general election) $500,000 for at-large council contenders and $125,000 for district council candidates.
The cost to taxpayers remains unclear. It will hinge on how many candidates qualify for the public matching funds. A study by Common Cause Maryland, which supports the Andrews bill, estimated that if matching funds were available during this year’s June primary, it would have cost about $2.5 million. That price tag is almost certain to rise with the match system now in place.
To receive matching funds, candidates must demonstrate their viability by raising seed money in individual donations of between $5 and $150. Aspirants for county executive will have to secure at least 500 contributions totaling $40,000. At-large council hopefuls will need at least 250 donations totaling $20,000, and those interested in district council seats would need to raise $10,000 with a minimum of 125 donations.
Despite the 9-to-0 vote, some council members expressed misgivings. Council President Craig Rice (D-Upcounty) said the size of the qualifying contributions was too steep, putting young and minority candidates without established donor bases at a disadvantage.
“We still have a lot of work to do,” Rice said, to open the political process to candidates of limited means. He sponsored an amendment to reduce the cap on matching funds by about a third. But the motion died for lack of a second.
Another amendment, sponsored by council member Hans Riemer (D-At-Large), would have made a certain portion of contributions from outside the county eligible for matching funds. But the measure was defeated, with most council members contending that county taxpayers should not be matching out-of-county contributions.
Council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large) said the bill was a solution to a problem she said does not exist and that money is not always needed to run a successful campaign.
“I’ve got to question what this is intended to effect,” Floreen said. “There are lots of ways to get name recognition.”
Most council members lauded the bill, but through different lenses. Some emphasized how it will force candidates to seek out and engage small individual donors. Others said that even if it doesn’t dramatically change the outcome of elections — studies of other public finance systems show incumbents still usually win — it will increase small donors’ sense of investment in the system.
“This is very much a historic moment for Montgomery,” said council member Nancy Navarro (D-Mid-County).
Council members also lavished praise on Andrews for his perseverance on this bill and through his 16 years of council service.
“This is a signature accomplishment,” said council member Roger Berliner (D-Potomac-Bethesda). “When you get your teeth into something, you don’t let it go,” Berliner said. “We are in your debt, sir.”