Baltimore City Council backs public financing of campaigns

End big money’s dominance of Baltimore politics. That was the message the Baltimore City Council sent Monday night when its 15 members voted unanimously to create a fund to provide public financing for local campaigns.

The public financing bill is designed to diminish the influence that wealthy political donors — such as developers, law firms and corporations — have over races for Baltimore mayor and City Council, said its lead sponsor, Councilman Kris Burnett.

The legislation would create a fund that would provide matching public money for small-dollar contributions to candidates to create a more-even playing field against better-financed opponents.

“It’s a huge deal for the city,” said Burnett, a first-term councilman who represents Southwest Baltimore. “This is a step in the right direction for the voters of Baltimore.”

The public financing campaign fund was one of the three charter amendments that the City Council gave preliminary approval to Monday. The others are the creation of a racial equity fund, and a move to make the inspector general, who investigates waste and abuse, independent of the mayor.

If the council votes for the measures one more time in July, they would be approved in time to go before voters in the November general election. Charter amendments must be approved at the ballot box.

But for a measure to get onto the ballot, Mayor Catherine E. Pugh would have to agree. She said Monday she hadn’t decided whether she would sign all three bills.

Pugh said she agrees that the inspector general should be independent from her control, but she was cool to the idea of a special fund for racial equity. The money from the racial equity fund could be spent on providing equity in housing, education, addressing past inequities in capital budget spending or eliminating structural racism and other forms of discrimination.

Pugh suggested such a fund is not necessary because she already is focused on such issues as boosting minority contracting.

“Everything I do is through a racial equity lens,” she said.

If approved by voters, the public financing of campaigns in Baltimore could begin as early as 2024.

The bill is designed to help small-dollar candidates compete with those who have the backing of developers and big businesses.

The cost of running for election in Baltimore spiked in the 2016 election. Candidates for mayor spent a total of $9 million — three times as much as in the previous mayor’s race — with the victor, Pugh, spending more than $2 million.

Under Burnett’s proposal, only candidates who agree to accept individual donations of less than $150 would be eligible for matching funds from the city. Individuals can now contribute up to $6,000 to a local political campaign.

Supporters want donations of up to $25 to be matched seven times — so a $10 donation would draw $70 in public funds.

But many details of the proposal remained unsettled — most notably, how to pay for it. The plan calls for establishing a revenue source for the proposed “Fair Election Fund” through an annual budgeted allocation, dedicating certain fines, fees and surcharges, and grants or donations, but makes no specific recommendations.

Burnett said a committee will iron out those details if voters approve the fund.

“There are a lot of people across the city who want to see this happen,” Burnett said. “The biggest hurdle is figuring out where the money will come from. We’re looking at diverse sources of revenue.”

Montgomery County enacted a similar public financing system in 2014. It is being used for the first time in elections there this year.

Councilman Brandon Scott proposed the racial equity fund, which would go toward eliminating “structural and institutional racism.” Companion legislation, also given preliminary approval Monday, would require each city agency to study whether it is engaging in discriminatory policies.

Initially, Scott’s proposed charter amendment called for about $15 million in dedicated revenue for the fund. In a compromise, however, the council voted for an amended version that stripped out the dedicated funding stream.

Scott said the lack of dedicated funding puts pressure on the council to make sure Pugh includes money for the fund in future budgets.

“Finance and other folks felt like we were harming the city’s ability to be flexible with spending,” Scott said. “Rather than not have the fund move forward at all, now it’s up to us to make sure the administration funds it. The fund will pass and it will be on the ballot for voters.”

In proposing the fund, Scott, a candidate for lieutenant governor on a ticket with lawyer Jim Shea, spoke of the city’s history of racist zoning laws and restrictive housing covenants. He said much work needs to be done to make sure city government is treating people fairly regardless of their race, gender or socio-economic status.

A third charter amendment, submitted by Councilman Ryan Dorsey, also won preliminary approval.

Dorsey’s bill would make the city’s inspector general independent from the mayor’s office — a move he said is needed to alleviate concerns that the current system protects high-ranking officials.

The proposal would create an independent panel that would name the inspector general to a six-year term. Only the panel could remove the inspector general, who investigates fraud, waste and abuse in city government.

That would be a departure from the current system, in which the inspector general reports to the city solicitor, who reports to the mayor.

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