Baltimore City Council passes public financing charter amendment

Baltimore is one step closer to allowing public financing of local election campaigns.

The City Council unanimously passed a charter amendment Monday that supporters say is designed to limit big money’s influence in Baltimore politics by offering candidates a way to leverage the money they raise in smaller amounts from citizens. The bill’s approval means the council has cleared a major hurdle in creating a “Fair Elections Fund” and a commission to control it.

The legislation still needs the mayor’s support before it can be placed on the ballot in November’s general election. All amendments to the City Charter must be approved by voters.

Mayor Catherine E. Pugh hasn’t taken a public stance on the legislation, and a spokesman didn’t respond to a request for comment Monday night. But the bill’s lead sponsor, Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, said Pugh’s office has been involved with crafting the bill’s final language.

While creation of the commission and fund still would be some time off, Burnett said the council’s approval at Monday night’s session is “a big step for democracy.”

“We want to make it as easy as possible for folks to run competitive races,” he said. “You don’t want money to be the barrier keeping people with good ideas out of a race.”

Should the mayor and voters support the idea, the city would begin providing eligible candidates with matching public funds for small-dollar donations, with the goal for curbing the power that wealthy political donors and special interest groups have in city elections.

The bill doesn’t specify where the money would come from. Burnett said the fair election fund commission, once created, would be tasked with recommending revenue sources. The public financing of campaigns likely wouldn’t begin until 2024.

“We want the commission to have as much time as possible to identify revenue sources and for the administration and council to work through a follow-up ordinance to set parameters for where the money is coming from,” Burnett said.

More than 30 groups have called on Pugh to sign the bill. Supporters say the proposed fund would strengthen democracy and uplift voters in a process they say is often dominated by wealthy donors and corporations.

“By joining the Baltimore City Council in supporting the Fair Elections Fund charter amendment, Mayor Pugh can strike a blow to big money politics while empowering Baltimore voters ” Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr said in a statement.

The cost of running for public office in Baltimore skyrocketed in the last election. Mayoral candidates spent a total of $9 million in 2016 — three times as much as in the previous mayor’s race. Pugh spent more than $2 million in her successful campaign.

Burnett, a first-term councilman, said he knows how much time can be eaten up by working phones or hosting events in pursuit of campaign contributions. He said that if such a fund existed when he ran, he “could’ve been out knocking on more doors” and listening to more of his future constituents’ voices.

Both Howard and Montgomery counties have enacted similar public financing systems in recent years.

The council also unanimously approved a charter amendment Monday that would designate the inspector general as separate from the mayor’s office and another that would create an equity assistance fund to support programs that work to eliminate “inequity based on race, gender, or economic status in Baltimore.”

Councilman Ryan Dorsey is the lead sponsor of the charter amendment that would create an independent Office of the Inspector General, outside of the mayor’s control. Pugh recently said she agreed with the move.

“Now we’ve got to get the voters turned out to support this thing,” Dorsey said after the meeting. “This is voters’ opportunity to ensure the city has the kind of independent watchdog built into the government that we deserve to have.”

But Pugh has expressed skepticism that an equity fund is necessary.

Councilman Brandon Scott, the bill’s lead sponsor, said it should now be up to voters to decide whether they believe the city should allocate money toward the pursuit of righting past wrongs.

“You can’t think of Baltimore now and not think about Baltimore’s history,” Scott said. “One of the things we don’t like to talk about is our history of being inequitable.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Luke Broadwater contributed to this article.

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