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News Opinion Editorial

Md.'s public financing resurrection [Editorial]

Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan's decision to accept public campaign financing for the general election is both good and bad for democracy in Maryland. It's good in that it validates the notion that our prospective leaders can and should seek to gain public office without being beholden to special interests. But it's bad in that the limited nature of Maryland's system means Mr. Hogan will almost certainly be outgunned by his Democratic rival, Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, making it that much harder for the Republican to mount a competitive campaign in a state where the odds are already stacked against him.

After two decades of non-use, several candidates in Maryland's gubernatorial primaries sought public financing, and both Mr. Hogan and Democratic Del. Heather Mizeur were raised enough through small contributions ($250 or less) to receive matching funds from the state. Both mounted credible state-wide campaigns, including some television advertising. Mr. Hogan ran away with his primary (though against under-funded opposition), and Ms. Mizeur shattered expectations for a previously little known candidate (though she did finish third).

Public financing, which is only available to gubernatorial candidates in Maryland, is a much better deal in the general election. During the primaries, the state matches candidates contributions; for the general, it cuts them a check. Mr. Hogan will get to spend the next three and a half months persuading Marylanders to give him their votes, not their money. He can try to connect with people outside the cloistered world of Maryland politics instead of spending as much time as he can stomach schmoozing with those who might someday want something in return for their generosity.

Maryland's public campaign financing law recognizes that fact, declaring that "our system of representative government depends in part on guaranteeing that election campaigns are funded by and for the people and on eliminating the corrupting and undemocratic effects of large private contributions." Such a fund, it says, "is necessary in these times in order for representative democracy to continue to function effectively." But disuse had caused the fund to fall out of favor. The legislature had effectively left the Fair Campaign Financing Fund for dead, declaring in 2009 that it "cannot operate as originally contemplated." That year, lawmakers siphoned off some of its money, and the next year, they eliminated the income tax check-off box that funded it. We hope the flurry of use the fund has seen this year prompts lawmakers to reverse course, restore the fund and expand it to cover more offices.

The risk, though, is that Mr. Hogan will wind up not as an endorsement of public financing but as a cautionary tale. Mr. Hogan will get $2.6 million from the campaign finance fund for the general election. Mr. Brown raised more than $12 million for the primary. Mr. Brown's campaign is right to tamp down the expectation that he will raise that much again in the weeks before the general election, but the major party gubernatorial candidates have, during the last two elections, raised on average more than $5 million between June 24 and Nov. 4 (the dates of this year's primary and general elections). For the record, the Republican, former Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., outraised the Democrat, Gov. Martin O'Malley, during that period both times.

But Mr. Hogan is not a current or former governor, as Mr. Ehrlich was. And significantly, Mr. Ehrlich's chief fundraiser, Richard E. Hug, died last year, leaving Maryland Republicans without their top rainmaker. It might have been difficult for Mr. Hogan to do much better than $2.6 million, particularly since out-of-state conservative groups were unlikely to funnel their cash into a Republican campaign for governor in Maryland. There are better investments to be made.

Unfortunately for Mr. Hogan, that may also be true on the state level. State and local Republican central committees are allowed to shift up to $3.7 million to the Hogan campaign, but that presumes they will be able to raise enough to do that and that they will not see more urgent uses for the money in support of candidates for the legislature or local offices. And for that matter, state and local Democratic central committees can give the same amount to Mr. Brown, if they see the need. It's hard enough for a Republican to win a gubernatorial race in Maryland; getting outspent, probably 2-1, makes it that much harder.

A competitive gubernatorial race would be good for Maryland. We just hope Mr. Hogan's noble decision to accept public financing doesn't preclude it.

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Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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