The Prince George’s County Council narrowly approved public financing for local political candidates early Wednesday, following a marathon meeting that marked the end of this year’s legislative session.
Citing concerns about how the county would afford to provide matching funds to political candidates who agree to forgo large donations, the council delayed implementation of the bill until 2026.
The legislation, which was backed by a variety of progressive groups, makes Prince George’s the third Maryland county to approve public financing, following Montgomery and Howard counties. If County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) signs the measure, Prince George’s will join nearly 30 other jurisdictions — including the District, New York City and San Francisco — that offer matching funds to candidates, according to Demos, a left-leaning think tank.
Baker spokesman Barry Hudson said “the county executive will review the legislation” before making a decision.
To participate in the program, candidates must not accept donations exceeding $250. Donations up to $150 that do not come from family members would be matched by public dollars.
Advocates heralded the bill, which passed 5-to-4, as a key way to open politics to new, diverse candidates and increase the power of small donors. Its opponents said taxpayer dollars would be better spent on issues such as education and public safety.
“It’s about democracy,” said bill sponsor Mary A. Lehman (D-District 1). “It’s about allowing people to run on ideas . . . not dialing for dollars, actually talking to voters.”
The legislation was originally proposed for the 2022 election cycle. An amendment late Tuesday from council member Karen R. Toles (D-District 7), who said she was worried about finding money to fund the bill, delayed it an additional four years.
“It’s an improvement, but we want to monitor the unintended consequences,” said council member Deni Taveras (D-District 2), who voted for the bill but said she has reservations about its cost and wants to ensure that it benefits all residents, including those in the poorest parts of the county.
The council also voted Tuesday to ban residents from renting out second homes on short-term platforms and to overhaul the county’s zoning laws.
State Del. Joseline A. Peña-Melnyk (D-Prince George’s), who spoke in support of the public finance bill, said the legislation “makes it easier for people of color and for women” to run for office.
Depending on how many candidates qualify for the voluntary program, it is expected to cost between $3.7 million and $12.1 million per election cycle, and would probably be on the lower end of that spectrum, officials said. Council members approved several amendments intended to guard against abuse of the program, including clarifying that candidates’ loans cannot be matched by taxpayer dollars and barring candidates who failed to submit campaign finance reports in the previous four years from participating.
During the sometimes tense meeting, council members expressed frustration with how the process to arrive at a vote had played out.
The bill was introduced in January but stalled because the public safety and fiscal management committee chair, Derrick Leon Davis (D-District 6), had concerns about its fiscal impact.
Following an outcry from advocates, it advanced last month during a council meeting that was abruptly adjourned by County Council Chair Dannielle M. Glaros (D-District 3), then restarted after she and two others left and council member Mel Franklin (D-District 9) was elected temporary chair.
The council’s meeting Tuesday was the first time all its members were present to discuss the bill and offer amendments. Several lawmakers expressed concern after the amendments were introduced that they no longer understood what was in the bill.
“I would not clap for that vote at all,” Glaros said after the bill passed and applause broke out among a few advocates. She voted no, along with Davis, Vice Chair Todd M. Turner (D-District 4) and Andrea C. Harrison (D-District 5).
In an interview Wednesday, Glaros said the addition of so many amendments “really begs the question of whether this legislation was ready for passage.”
In Montgomery County, where the system debuted this year, the number of first-time candidates jumped significantly. Democratic county executive nominee Marc Elrich, a veteran council member, and Republican nominee Robin Ficker, a lawyer, are among those using public financing in Montgomery.
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 one dollar for each dollar received for the next $75.