Howard lawmakers delay vote to create publicly funded campaign system

The Howard County Council tabled a bill Monday night to create a public finance system for candidates who swear off corporate or PAC contributions and donations larger than $250.

Jon Weinstein, the council's chairman and a co-sponsor of the bill, said the five-member body, which is currently in the thick of budget season, needed more time to review amendments with the state's election board. The council could vote on the bill on June 5.

"We really just need to be thorough. There are many pieces to this legislation," he said. "There's no need to rush this."

The measure has drawn resistance from Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman and Councilman Greg Fox. While the two Republican elected officials back citizen-funded campaigns, they argue the system should rely on voluntary contributions, not government appropriations.

Before the vote on Monday, Fox filed several amendments to alter the program, including one move to remove government funding from the program and free the county executive from setting aside annual funding to sustain the program.

The system would cost under $3 million over four years if two candidates for county executive and 15 candidates for county council receive the maximum amount of public funding allowed under the system, according to estimates from Maryland PIRG, one of several progress groups and community organizations that pushed for the measure.

Voters narrowly approved the idea in November. At a public hearing last month, supporters said the system would act as a counter-punch against the influence of big money in politics and a boon for the voices of everyday people.

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

Candidates for county executive can unlock $750,000 in funds while candidates for the council can unlock up to $95,000 in funding.

In other council actions Moday, a move by Councilwoman Mary Kay Sigaty to allow cottage food businesses as home occupations in the county's zoning code passed unanimously. The measure allows those businesses to produce or package food in a residential kitchen for farmers' markets and public events.

The county Office of Transportation and its director will also have expanded authorities and responsibility after the council unanimously passed a proposal by Kittleman to broaden the office's focus from transit to all modes of transportation and to take part in a committee that reviews subdivisions and site development plans.

In a rare move, the council also undid an agreement between the county and Meadowlark LLC, a developer that backed out of plans to build 20 single-family homes in Elkridge, to build a road to support the development. The agreement required the developer to dedicate a right-of-way to Forest Avenue to the county.

The council also unanimously removed a commercial zoning district from several of the county's rural crossroads communities.

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