Howard County Council members propose 'citizen funded campaign system'

Howard County Council members proposed a new publicly funded campaign system that matches small campaign donat

Two Howard County Council members proposed a new publicly funded campaign system Monday that matches small campaign donations using public funds.

Proposed by Council members Jon Weinstein and Jen Terrasa, the resolution — called a "citizen funded campaign system" — is a major change to the county's charter. If the council passes the resolution in the beginning of March, the amendment will head to the ballots this year and take effect for the 2022 election cycle.

Pushed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010, which ignited a national conversation about the power of money in politics, publicly funded campaigns have picked up steam across the country. Joining nearly two-dozen states, Maryland lawmakers created an option for a publicly funded system in the campaign finance bill of 2013.

Weinstein hopes the proposal will urge more citizens to be involved in the democratic process.

"We want to engage citizens more in the process so they feel like they can wield influence, increase their voice and enhance it," said Weinstein, who has accepted donations from corporations and Political Action Committees. "That is how the system is now. And we can have an alternative."

"We are joining a national conversation on the influence of money in politics," said Terrasa. "We have to preserve our democracy."

Although citizen funding can affect how candidates run campaigns — or whether they decide to at all — the research is not conclusive, according to a literature review by the Campaign Finance Institute. However, matching funds provide incentives for candidates to spend more time and resources to mobilize small donors, according to the study

In September 2014, Montgomery County became the first county in Maryland to opt-in to the system. Howard County's system will likely be modeled after Montgomery County's system, which will be effective in the 2018 election cycle, said Weinstein. The county is working on details about the maximum contributions allowed, qualifications to access public funding and other requirements, he said.

A preliminary estimate indicates a four-year election cycle may cost up to $2 million, assuming many candidates opt-in to the voluntary system, Weinstein said. Studies to determine costs of the proposed system are in progress, he said.

To qualify for matching funds in Montgomery County, candidates for county executive must secure $40,000 with a minimum of 500 donations; candidates for at-large positions must secure at least $20,000 with a minimum of 250 donations; and candidates for district council seats must secure $10,000 with a minimum of 125 donations. Candidates who opt-in cannot accept money from corporations or PACs.

In Montgomery County, public contributions are capped at $750,000 for county executive candidates, $500,000 for at-large council candidates and $125,000 for district council candidates. The matching system is based on a tiered formula. For example, if a county executive candidate receives two donations of $50, the candidate will receive $600. But if the candidate receives one donation of $100, the candidate will receive $500. The first $50 of each contribution is matched at a 6:1 ratio for county executive candidates and 4:1 ratio for council candidates. The rate decreases for each $50 donated. The second $50 is matched at a 4:1 ratio for county executive candidates and at a 3:1 ratio for council candidates. The final $50 is matched at a 2:1 ratio for county executive and council candidates.

The Howard resolution creates the Commission on Citizen Funded Campaigns, which would include five county residents appointed by the council and two county residents appointed by the county executive. The commission would calculate estimated costs to fund the citizen funded campaign citizen budget, the resolution states.

On a national scale, proponents of publicly funded campaigns say matching funds increase competition among candidates. However, studies show incumbents almost always have an advantage, said Candice Nelson, a government professor at American University.

"There are too many factors at play in elections," she said.

The price tag of publicly funded campaigns is a source of concern, said Wendy Underhill, a program manager for elections policy with the National Conference of State Legislatures, a bipartisan non-governmental organization that works with state legislatures.

"Proponents will suggest that having funds makes it more possible for competitive races to be run. It is tricky to keep up with the costs of campaigning," said Underhill. "The impact of [matching funds] is sometimes in the eye of the beholder."

David Keating, president of the Center for Competitive Politics, questioned the use of public funds for campaigning.

"Taxpayers wind up giving funds to a candidate they do not prefer," said Keating. "Basically, it's a subsidy for running campaigns."

Weinstein says the system is an investment in Howard County's democratic process.

"The commission will have the opportunity to adjust the cost of the system on an annual basis to reflect the number of candidates who qualify for the system," he said. "Ultimately, the voters will decide if they want this."

If approved, the measure will head to the ballots. County officials plan to apply lessons from Montgomery County's first application of the system in 2018.

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