Government by the people

In government, there is the will of the voters, such as when Howard County last fall approved Question A on the local ballot. It's a charter amendment authorizing public financing of the campaigns of candidates for county executive and county council. But then there is also the will of politically minded elected official, and that might be best represented by Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman's promise to veto legislation that puts that that charter amendment into action by the 2022 election.

The county executive's reason for the veto? Because the legislation allows taxpayer dollars to be spent on political campaigns. Mr. Kittleman said in an interview that he would prefer that the money dispensed come entirely from voluntary contributions such as a tax return checkoff — and he doesn't think the obligation of county taxpayers to come up with $600,000-$700,000 per year was made clear by the ballot measure.

That's not a new thought. Mr. Kittleman has voiced similar objections to taxpayer financing in the past, as have other elected officials from both parties. The problem with that reasoning is that the Question A voters saw on their ballots last November specifically requires the county to finance the "Citizens' Election Fund System." Indeed, it even calls for a withdrawal from the county's "rainy day fund" if the county executive fails to include the money in the budget. A healthy majority of Howard County voters who went to the polls (slightly more than 76,000) decided they didn't need a voluntary checkoff, which was unlikely to provide adequate resources anyway.

Mr. Kittleman is thumbing his nose at those voters, and here's the bizarre part — he's doing it only for symbolic effect. The measure passed the County Council by a veto-proof, 4-1 majority (Republican Councilman Greg Fox providing the only dissenting vote). Mr. Kittleman could let the bill become law without signing it, but apparently it was more important to him to demonstrate his antagonism toward the public financing of elections, even though he has, in the past while serving as a state senator, supported public financing of elections when tax dollars were not involved.

Confused? We suspect a lot of Howard County residents are, too. Public financing of political campaigns might be one of the best bargains county residents could underwrite with their tax dollars. Nothing "drains the swamp" of special interest politics quite like offering candidates for public office an option to run their campaigns on something other than special interest money. Montgomery County has already launched a similar system for the 2018 election, and at least 17 candidates have already indicated they plan to tap the small donor fund.

Here's how the voluntary system works. Candidates for council or executive who turn down contributions over $250 as well as money from corporations, unions and political action committees can receive matching funds for small contributions made by county residents. To quality for those matching funds, candidates must demonstrate they are serious, viable contenders with sufficient community support by first raising a certain amount in small donations.

Common Cause and other political reform groups have been advocating for public financing of campaigns for years at all levels of government. They reason that it's better for Howard County's elected leaders to make major decisions like a tax increment financing package for the redevelopment of Columbia, a $2 billion project, without the decision-makers being tainted with large donations from the developers involved. Does that mean a candidate you don't support might receive tax dollars to run his or her campaign? Absolutely, but your tax dollars finance the salaries of election winners you don't support either, so why would this be different?

Mr. Kittleman ran for county executive as a pragmatic moderate, but there are times when he misses the mark. His opposition to a bill mandating healthy snack options in county vending machines two years ago (which was similarly overturned) and his veto of legislation protecting undocumented immigrants, chiefly by codifying existing county practices (and sustained on a 3-2 council vote earlier this year), suggest he isn't committed to centrism when it conflicts with GOP orthodoxy.

The county executive is expected to announce his plan to run for re-election in the near future. Might this be an effort to stir the Republican base? That could make sense if he were running for statewide office, but Howard County rather likes its moderates. Given that Republican candidates can benefit from public financing of campaigns as much as Democrats (Larry Hogan providing the most recent example), we hope Mr. Kittleman will reconsider his position and respect the will of his county's voters.

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