Support for publicly funded campaign system surges at Howard hearing

A proposal to create a public financing system for candidates who swear off large donations in Howard County drew strong backing at a public hearing Wednesday night.

The system, which received an early nod from voters by a narrow margin in the November election, hopes to draw more small individual donors into campaigns and limit the financial clout of special interests.

Candidates must not receive corporate or PAC contributions and donations larger than $250 to qualify for matching funds.

At a gathering preceding the Wednesday afternoon hearing, local residents and a coalition of organizations suggested the system could be a game-changer for local politics by elevating the voice of everyday people, expanding opportunities for candidates seeking a run for office and encouraging candidates to spend more time with constituents instead of building up their campaign war chest.

U.S. Rep. John Sarbanes, a Democrat who represents parts of Howard County and who proposed a similar system on the national level this year, said the county was well on its way to becoming a "model" for other jurisdictions.

"You did something here in the last election that is virtually unprecedented," Sarbanes said.

In the November election, around 53 percent of Howard County voters approved a change to the county's charter to lay the foundation for the system. County Council Chairman Jon Weinstein and Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, both Democrats, sponsored the bill.

Pushed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010, which opponents say shifted the field in favor of big campaign donors, publicly funded campaigns have picked up steam across the country.

But Howard's measure, which is scheduled for a council vote on May 1, faces an uncertain future.

Weinstein cautioned the system, if passed, could face a "counter-referendum."

"Don't get complacent because this issue needs to be fought for here," he said, addressing a crowd gathered before the hearing. "Up until this point democracy has sort of been a concept that we all agree we love and support over the last 20 years; that concept has been tainted," he added.

Although Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman declined to definitively say he would veto the measure, he has said he is strongly opposed to the system, which relies on public funding.

Through a spokesman Kittleman, a Republican, said he objects to using taxpayer dollars that could fund campaigns taxpayers oppose and that it "diverts" county funding from critical infrastructure needs.

Instead, Kittleman said, citizen-funded campaigns, which he supports, should rely on voluntary contributions.

The council needs four votes to ensure the bill is veto-proof.

David Marker, a Columbia resident speaking on behalf of the Columbia Democratic Club, said the system was not a partisan issue and would allow residents to run for office who might otherwise be prevented because of the burden of fundraising. Other supporters said the system would elevate minorities and underrepresented residents in the county to elected office and restore some residents' faith in government and democracy.

Marker decided against running for a local council seat in 1986 because he had "no way" to raise enough money to become a "credible candidate."

Joining nearly two dozen states, Maryland lawmakers created an option for a publicly funded system in the campaign finance bill of 2013.

The number of qualifying candidates will determine the cost of the system to taxpayers.

If two candidates for county executive and 15 candidates for county council receive the maximum amount of public funding allowed, the system will cost $2.95 million over four years, said Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG, one of around 30 progressive groups and local organizations pushing for the measure.

Councilman Greg Fox will also vote against the measure, citing concerns similar to Kittleman. Fox said he would have supported the system if it relied on voluntary funding.

"The misnomer is that this is not voluntary for the taxpayer," Fox said.

Howard's system is modeled after a similar system in Montgomery County, which is set to go live next year.

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 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.

The first $50 of each individual contribution will be matched using public funds on a 7-1 rate for county executive candidates and a 5-1 rate for council candidates. Matching ratios fall for each remaining $50 contribution.

Speaking on behalf of the League of Women Voters of Howard County, Linda Wengel, a Columbia resident, suggested implementing the system next year when candidates don't bear the "burden of incumbency."

Next year, at least four of the five council seats will be vacated by term-limited incumbents.

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