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Baltimore County executive proposes public campaign finance legislation

Baltimore Sun logoBaltimore Sun 11/15/2021 Taylor DeVille, Baltimore Sun
Marylanders cast their ballots at the Randallstown Community Center in Baltimore County on Election Day 2020. © Baltimore Sun staff Marylanders cast their ballots at the Randallstown Community Center in Baltimore County on Election Day 2020.

Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. announced a bill creating public financing that candidates for the Baltimore County Council and county executive could start using in 2026.

The bill, which will create what Olszewski and others have called a “fair election fund,” will be introduced at the council’s Nov. 15 session, streamed virtually. Democratic Council Chair Julian Jones and Republican Councilman David Marks are co-sponsoring the bill.

“Money should never be a barrier to running for office,” Olszewski said. And, as the council is central to a redistricting debate that critics worry will underrepresent Black residents, Olszewski hopes the fund will “empower a more diverse group of candidates.”

The legislation would require candidates for council and county executive to meet different qualifying thresholds for eligibility. Council candidates who want to opt in first have to raise a total of $10,000 in contributions from at least 125 donors. Those running for the county’s top seat must raise at least $40,000 from 500 or more contributors. All contributors must be county residents.

That measure is meant to safeguard the fund from candidates running frivolous campaigns to take advantage of the funding, said Rishi Shah, a spokesman for Maryland PIRG, a member organization of the federation of state Public Interest Research Groups which advocates for various public interest issues.

“That would certainly be an abuse of the fund and something we don’t want to see,” he said. “Inclusion of the standards means that the fund can only be used by candidates who are running a serious campaign for office.”

Local candidates must accept only donations from individuals of up to $250 and must refuse donations from political action committees, corporations and other candidates and political parties. There are also restrictions on family donations and loans.

For qualifying council candidates the county would provide matching funds on a sliding scale. For every eligible donation, a council candidate would get $4 from the county for every dollar of the first $50 donated; $3 per dollar for each of the second $50, and $2 per dollar donated for the third $50 increment.

That means a candidate who receives a $50 donation could get an additional $200 in matching funds. If a council member received the maximum donation of $250, they’d get an additional $450 from the county.

More money is available for county executive candidates, who could earn up to $600 for each $250 donation. They would see a $6 match for every dollar donated for the first $50; $4 per dollar for the next $50; and $2 for the third $50 donated. The county would stop matching after a single donor gives $150.

When a candidate ends their run, any unspent money will be put back into the financing system.

Rep. John Sarbanes, a longtime proponent of public financing, said funding is a “critical element” to successful political campaigns.

“When you put these systems in place, not only does the broad public feel more respected — but you increase the diversity of the candidate pool,” he said during a news conference.

The legislation would also establish a nine-member Fair Election Fund Commission with members appointed to four-year terms from each of the seven councilmanic districts by the council and county executive, all approved by the council.

The commission would determine how much funding is needed to sustain the program for the upcoming election cycle, and make an annual recommendation to the county executive for each budget, according to county spokesman Sean Naron.

Naron pointed to a prior estimate that the program would cost Baltimore County about $4.3 million per election cycle.

A work group spent six months devising recommendations for the legislation, setting thresholds on which candidates qualify for the program and the limits of matching funds and donations.

Voters approved public campaign financing by referendum during last year’s election. The measure was among top priorities for Olszewski, a Democrat, upon taking office in 2018.

Proponents say the move levels the political playing field by mitigating an economic barrier that keeps less affluent would-be candidates from running — thus encouraging a wider talent pool. The idea is to limit the influence of special interests on campaigns.

“The amount of money your family makes, your race, your gender, shouldn’t dictate the volume of your voice,” said Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG, during a news conference.

State legislation approved in 2013 enabled Maryland counties to set up public campaign financing for local races. Montgomery County became the first to use it, in the 2018 election. Prince George’s County plans to do so in 2026.

In Howard County, voters passed the measure in 2106. The program is set to start in 2022. Baltimore City’s public financing is expected to go into effect for the 2024 election cycle.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

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