Baltimore County voters will decide next year whether to give local candidates the option of public campaign financing, under legislation approved Monday by the County Council.
The council voted 5-2 to approve the proposal by County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. Supporters say public financing could help reduce the influence of special interests on county politics by encouraging small donors.
Now, a charter amendment will be placed on the 2020 ballot for voters to weigh whether to establish the program starting in 2026.
Councilman Julian Jones, a Woodstock Democrat, and Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, voted against the legislation.
Jones said he couldn’t support spending taxpayer money on the program when he sees a long list of needs his community — such as spending on schools, sidewalks and road improvements.
“Is it an appropriate use of taxpayer dollars?” he said. “What does the general public at large get from this? ... Will they get one bench? Will they get one speed hump? Will they get another school lunch for a kid?”
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins last week said she was undecided, but the Middle River Democrat voted to support the legislation. She joined Democrats Tom Quirk of Oella and Izzy Patoka of Pikesville, and Republicans Wade Kach of Cockeysville and David Marks of Perry Hall in approving the bill.
Bevins said she had concerns about the cost but concluded that the issue should be decided by voters.
The council also passed two other pieces of legislation that Olszewski said were designed to improve the public’s trust in county government.
One would create an independent Office of Ethics and Accountability — similar to an inspector general’s office — with subpoena power and the authority to investigate allegations of abuse and fraud in county government. The new agency is estimated to cost $210,000 next year.
Crandell was the only member to vote against the bill creating the office. He questioned why it was needed when other parts of county government — such as the auditor’s office and the ethics commission — have some similar duties.
“Do we need to expand government into a whole new agency?” Crandell asked.
Under another bill, which passed unanimously, the county will post lobbyist registrations and reports online, expand the number of employees required to undergo ethics training, and tighten existing ethics rules.
The package of bills was Olszewski’s first major legislative effort as county executive.
“I’m grateful that the council has voted to approve measures that will go a long way toward increasing ethics, transparency and accountability and that will reduce the influence of money and special interests in our local elections,” Olszewski said in a statement after the vote.
None of the details of the campaign financing program have been worked out, so it’s unclear how much a candidate who opts in could receive. Usually, such programs provide matching public funds for candidates who pledge to limit how much they spend and how much they receive from individual donors.
Administration officials have estimated the program would cost Baltimore County about $4.3 million per election cycle.
If approved by voters, the county would join other Maryland jurisdictions trying public campaign financing. Last year, Montgomery County used it for the first time in its County Council and executive races. Also in 2018, Baltimore City voters approved a ballot measure that opened the door to public financing.
Plans are in the works for Howard County to have a system of public financing beginning in 2022, and Prince George’s County is set to begin one in 2026.