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Howard's publicly funded election system eyes 2022 launch

Local lawmakers began early discussions Monday to set up a program for public funding for campaigns after voters narrowly passed a ballot measure in November that allows candidates running for county council and county executive races to opt-in for public financing.

Although the system won't go into effect until the 2022 election cycle, advocates of the system said Howard County lawmakers must carefully consider how to set-up what could be a tricky program to implement.

"It's possible that something could be passed and not be used very often if there are problems with it," cautioned Brent Ferguson, an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan legal institute in New York.

The proposal, which proponents argue will boost citizen engagement in elections by amplifying the power of small donors and allowing more candidates to run in local races, passed the ballot with 53 percent of the vote.

Council Chairman Jon Weinstein and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, who proposed to send the idea to the ballots, plan to introduce legislation to set up the program in March for a possible April council vote, Terrasa said. The program will include creating a public commission that provides recommendations on funding levels and oversees the program.

The Council must hammer out qualifications required for candidates to participate in the program, the maximum amount of funding available per candidate and fund-matching ratios — details that must be carefully considered to ensure the program is competitive against non-publicly funded campaigns and lucrative for publicly funded candidates.

The annual cost of the program is "the elephant in the room," said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

The program could cost between $2.5 and $3 million over a four-year election cycle, according to early estimates.

Although residents could check-off a portion of their local income taxes to fund the program, Bevan-Dangel said it was unlike voluntary contributions would be enough to sustain the program.

"There is an admission across the board that check-offs alone are not enough," she said Monday.

The Council must also consider setting requirements for who can submit small contributions to candidates under the system and the amount candidates must raise to become eligible for public funds. Some programs require small contributions to come from registered voters while others accept donations from residents.

"You want to make sure that you feel secure and you are going forward here you're weeding out non-serious candidates," said Jared DeMarinis, director for candidate and campaign finance for the state's Board of Elections.

DeMarinis recommended only allowing registered voters to contribute to publicly funded candidates in order to verify who is contributing and track fraudulent transactions.

The idea of using taxpayer dollars for public campaigns drew strong opposition from County Executive Allan Kittleman, who said the system diverts taxpayer dollars and inappropriately uses public dollars by funding opponents.

Kittleman, who voted in support of citizen-funded election as state senator, said he was not opposed to the concept of citizen-funded campaigns, but only supported them if they were run by voluntary contributions.

Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ran successfully using the state's public funding program and proposed to replenish the program with taxpayer funds last year.

The treasurer of the committee that campaigned against the ballot measure before the election, Brad Myers, is also Kittleman's campaign committee treasurer.

Proponents of the measure, organized under the Fair Elections campaign and including a broad-based coalition including Maryland PIRG, Common Cause and the Democracy Initiative, outspent opponents of the measure by a ratio of more than 10:1, according to state campaign finance records.

All eyes are on Montgomery County's system, which goes into effect in 2018 after its Council unanimously passed legislation in September 2016. But before it passed, the system went through 21 revisions.

Bevan-Dangel anticipates similar back-and-forth in Howard.

The coalition that pushed the measure suggested capping donations at $150. Donations would be matched using a tiered-system, with the first $50 matched six to one for county executive and four to one for county council. To qualify for public funding, county executive candidates would have to raise $40,000 on their own and $7,500 for county council races.

The measure is the first time a public financing option for campaigns has been set for referendum in the country. Other systems were passed by local council approval or were part of other programs on ballots.

"Until you start writing it down and seeing it on paper, it's all very intellectual," Bevan-Dangel said.

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