Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr.’s first major legislation faces opposition from some County Council members who don’t like the idea of public campaign financing for local races, but it still could pass narrowly.
The council will consider his bill today to create a system that could give county candidates access to public funds if it’s approved by voters in a referendum.
The idea is to get big money out of politics — and if approved, the county would join a growing number of Maryland communities trying the concept. Olszewski’s bill would put a charter amendment on the 2020 ballot, so county voters would decide whether to establish the program.
“It’s the only real way to get the pulse of our communities on this issue,” Olszewski told the seven-member council last week.
As a candidate last year, Olszewski said he would create a public financing option and improve the accountability of a county government often criticized by residents for lacking transparency. The campaign finance bill is one of three up for a vote. The others would create an independent Office of Ethics and Accountability and strengthen the county’s existing ethics rules.
Among council members, the campaign finance issue is the most controversial.
Typically, these programs encourage small donations and give candidates matching public funds. In exchange, candidates pledge to limit how much they spend and how much they accept from individual donors.
Supporters say the program could increase the diversity of donors and candidates and alleviate the perception that county politicians are beholden to special interests, particularly developers.
Last year, Montgomery County used such a system for the first time. Howard County plans to do so beginning in 2022, and Prince George’s in 2026. Baltimore City voters approved a ballot measure last year that allowed public financing, but the city hasn’t set up a fund yet.
If the Baltimore County legislation passes and voters approve the charter amendment, the details would need to be hammered out. The county’s program would give candidates for council and executive the option of participating, likely beginning in 2026.
At a meeting last week, council members peppered Olszewski and supporters of the bill with questions about the program’s cost and other issues. Much of the pushback came from one of Olszewski’s fellow Democrats, Councilman Julian Jones of Woodstock.
“Where is the public benefit? Where is the public good? Why should the public fund somebody’s campaign?” Jones asked.
Jones repeatedly questioned whether the cost of the program — estimated to be about $4.3 million per election cycle — would be worth it. Olszewski said the idea is part of his campaign pledge to make county government more open and accountable.
“Elections and governing are about priorities,” Olszewski said. “And I was clear in my campaign that this was one of my priorities.”
Catonsville activist Sheila Ruth, who lost to Council Chairman Tom Quirk in last year’s Democratic primary, told the council that public financing systems “help elect candidates who engage more with constituents than large donors.” She pointed to the $43 million public assistance package for the Towson Row development, which she said many citizens opposed.
The conversation left some members of the council defending the role of fundraising on their decisions.
“My vote’s not for sale,” Councilman Todd Crandell, a Dundalk Republican, said after the meeting.
He pointed to his vote against the Towson Row package, despite receiving contributions from its developers.
Councilwoman Cathy Bevins, a Middle River Democrat, said she is offended by the notion that members are “bought and paid for” if they take contributions. Bevins said council members frequently turn down the requests of campaign donors — and “nobody hears about that.”
“I think that people that do business in Baltimore County want to have people in these positions that are making fair decisions,” Bevins said.
Because the bill could amend the county charter, it needs five votes to pass, rather than the typical four.
Of the seven council members, Republicans David Marks of Perry Hall and Wade Kach of Cockeysville said they likely would vote for the bill, going so far as to question why the county should wait until 2026 to implement it. Democrats Quirk, of Oella, and Izzy Patoka of Pikesvile said they would likely vote for the bill, too.
With Jones and Crandell saying they will likely vote against the legislation, Bevins would need to vote for the bill to overcome their opposition. She said last week she was undecided.
Money in politics was a key issue in last year’s Democratic primary for county executive, with candidates Jim Brochin and Vicki Almond frequently criticizing each other over donations. As a state senator, Brochin unsuccessfully pushed legislation that would have banned developer contributions.
Bryan Fischer, a Towson activist, said that the influence of campaign contributions is “perceived to be a major problem in Baltimore County” among many residents.
“I think the optics are certainly very bad when you have developers who are donating large sums of money to campaigns and at the same time advancing their agenda. That’s what they’re in business to do,” said Fischer, who supported Brochin’s failed bill to ban developer contributions. “On the side of the elected official, I just don’t see how they could be impartial.”
At last week’s council meeting, Timonium resident Ron Lambert described his community’s experience opposing a proposed assisted living facility.
“We all came away from this experience feeling frustrated, believing that political decisions are rigged in favor of large campaign donors,” Lambert said.
Lambert said all three of the bills up for a vote would improve trust in county government.
The measure to create an ethics and accountability office would give the new agency unrestricted access to records and information needed to investigate allegations of government fraud and abuse. The other bill would require the county to post lobbyist registrations online and bar top officials from lobbying for a year after they leave county government.