MARYLAND HAS long offered candidates for statewide office the option of public financing for their campaigns, but candidates at the local level have to raise money the old-fashioned way. More often than not, particularly in big suburban jurisdictions like Montgomery County, that means going hat in hand to big-money interests, such as developers and public-employee labor unions.
The result has been elected officials who are heavily dependent on the deep-pocketed groups whose donations are critical to their campaigns. Not exactly a recipe for good government.
Last year, lawmakers in Annapolis passed a bill authorizing localities to adopt their own public-campaign-financing systems. Candidates could opt in, or not, as they wish. To its credit, Montgomery, by far the state’s biggest locality, looks likely to be the first out of the gate with its system.
A county council committee is set to review draft legislation that would cover county executive and council elections, starting in 2018. The goal of the bill’s chief sponsor, council member Phil Andrews (D-Gaithersburg-Rockville), is to balance the financial clout of special interests by offering inducements that would encourage ordinary citizens to donate to candidates.
The legislation provides candidates with a trade-off: In return for declining special-interest contributions of any kind, candidates for local office would be eligible for healthy amounts of public matching funds, provided they could demonstrate broad grass-roots backing from constituents in the form of small checks — $150 or less.
A candidate for county executive who could raise $150,000 by amassing $50 checks from 3,000 county residents would unlock $900,000 in public matching funds. County council candidates would face similar incentives.
In both cases, candidates would need to pass a minimum threshold before they could access public funds. And the amount of public funding available would be capped at $1.5 million for a county executive candidate who ran both in a contested primary and general election.
Fourteen states and a growing number of local governments have adopted similar systems, and there is strong evidence that they result in candidates who enter office less beholden to special interests.
One case study is New York City, where candidates for the city council have the option of public financing while candidates for the state legislature do not. According to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law and the Campaign Finance Institute, the result has been far more robust participation by small donors across a much broader array of neighborhoods in city council races than in state legislative races in overlapping districts.
Public financing is especially timely, given the Supreme Court’s recent decisions tilting the field in favor of big campaign donors. True, taxpayers pick up the tab for leveraging the influence of small donors. But the cost is modest — probably no more than $3 million annually when prorated for a four-year election cycle.
Mr. Andrews’s bill had the unanimous support of his council colleagues when he introduced it. That’s a good sign that the county’s politicians understand the need for a robust public financing option for future elections.