Howard County campaign finance back in the spotlight at panel event

Kate Magill
Contact ReporterHoward County Times

Months after the Howard County Council passed public campaign financing legislation, political activists will gather on Sunday to discuss campaign finance reform at an event hosted by the group Together We Will Howard County.

The event, Oct. 15 at 6 p.m. at the Owen Brown Interfaith Center in Columbia, will include discussion of the county’s new public campaign financing law, which was passed in June. The legislation allows those who turn down large donations to accept money gathered from government appropriations; it will take effect in 2022.

Speakers at Sunday’s event include Rep. John Sarbanes of Maryland’s 3rd District as well as local activists from Progressive Maryland, Get Money Out Maryland, Maryland PIRG and Common Cause Maryland.

Sarbanes introduced the bill “Government by the People Act” in January to establish a federal program for small individual donations to campaigns, including a matching program and tax credit for small contributions.

Sunday’s event is meant to give residents a chance to learn more about the campaign finance system and what the next steps are in Howard County to ensure the success of the new law when it is implemented, said Becca Niburg, co-chairwoman of Together We Will.

“With the recent conversations in Howard County after the referendum about how we were going to implement public financing, we’re trying to look down the road and say, ‘Okay we took the first step, but has anybody said what the next step will be?’”

Niburg said the speakers at the event will be able to offer perspectives into how the system could work at the local level in Howard, as well as potential solutions for campaign finance reform at the state and federal levels.

Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland, said she will discuss what the new local law will specifically do, as well as provide updates about how similar legislation is in the process of being implemented in Montgomery County in 2018, and what insight that can offer to the future of Howard. She said in Montgomery, the law is providing new opportunities for minority groups and others who do not often participate in politics to get involved.

“The most exciting thing that we’re seeing in Montgomery is that so many candidates are running who say they wouldn't have even considered running for office without this program,” Bevan-Dangel said.

Under Howard County's plan, candidates for county executive must demonstrate grassroots support by collecting at least $40,000 from 500 donations to get matching funds. Council candidates must collect at least $10,000 from at least 125 donations.

Candidates for county executive can unlock $700,000 in funds, while candidates for the council can unlock up to $85,000 in funding.

Maryland PIRG director Emily Scarr said the event will help more people understand the next steps in the process to implement the new system in the county, including getting it funded by the County Council.

Scarr said the system will need proper funding and oversight to ensure its success, and encouraged residents, both those who attend Sunday’s event and others, to stay informed of the county’s budget process in the coming years to make sure it’s fully funded. PIRG has estimated it will cost under $3 million over the next four years to fund the system.

She also encouraged people to share information with others to spread awareness and understanding of the upcoming changes.

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