In a slim margin, Howard County voters Tuesday approved a measure to allow candidates running in local races to use public funds for their campaigns.
Part of a nationwide surge to purge big money from politics, the approval from voters creates a pool of funds available for county council and county executive candidates who choose to opt into the system.
Nearly 52 percent of voters approved of the measure with just seven precincts remaining.
"The result hopefully will be a broader representation of all Howard County citizens to further the idea that our county is a great place to live," said David Steele of the NAACP for Howard County.
For Dale Offutt, a 43-year-old Ellicott City resident, the citizen fund is not a win for democracy — it is a loss for taxpayer dollars.
"I don't want my taxpayer money to go anywhere else except for schools, firefighters and police officers," Offutt said. "It should be used for something that will help me and my son. That's what it's for. Nothing else."
Efforts to limit the influence of special interest groups have picked up throughout the country on the heels of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which removed campaign spending limits for those groups. Howard joins at least half of the 50 states, including Maryland, in providing taxpayer subsidies for candidates.
Over the next several months, the Howard County Council will determine the details of the publicly funded campaign system, which allows candidates who raise enough small donations and shun large contributions to get matching funds from a county fund. A county-formed commission will recommend funding levels to the council.
Lawmakers in Howard have their eyes on Montgomery County where the council unanimously passed a similar system in late September. Gov. Larry Hogan used a state program that relied on volunteer donations in his campaign for office. Hogan moved to use taxpayer funds to replenish the program last year.
Montgomery's system is set to go live in 2018, giving the council enough time to mold the program for Howard's 2022 election cycle, said Councilman Jon Weinstein.
Weinstein, who proposed to send the issue to the ballots earlier this year, is the only current council member who could benefit from the program. All other council seats will be up for grabs in 2018, when the terms of the other sitting council members expire.
The measure is the first time a public financing option for campaigns has been set for referendum in the country. Other systems were passed by local council approval or were part of other programs on ballots.
Howard's program would cost up to $2.5 million in a four-year period, according to estimates from Fair Elections Howard, the grassroots coalition behind the ballot question.
Roughly two-thirds of the total money raised for county executive and county council races in 2010 and 2014 came from outside the county, according to an analysis by Fair Elections Howard.
Nonprofit organizations like Common Cause Maryland, Progressive Maryland and Maryland PIRG pushed for the change as part of a broad effort to wrap publicly funded campaigns into local jurisdiction's campaign finance systems.
"Howard County voters have sent a clear message that they want their elected officials to be accountable to the people of Howard County alone, not corporate interests," said Maryland PIRG Director Emily Scarr.
Paid staff campaigned at various polling locations throughout the county on election day.
A common perception in Howard is that developers have bought elections for years, said Alan Schneider, who lost to Councilman Greg Fox, a Republican, in 2014.
Publicly funded campaigns boost individual voices often drowned in favor of special-interest groups, he said.
"There are a lot of people all over the county who feel they're not being listened to, even if we have public hearings where people can speak. It's not being incorporated into the decisions being made," Schneider, 70, said.
John Barnes, a retired NSA employee, said even the perception that special interests have a hand in local politicians' pockets is dangerous for democracy in Howard.
"Money can sway a vote in some of these little down-ballot races," Barnes said.
But not everyone agrees taxpayer funds to finance campaigns is a good idea — including Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a vocal opponent of the system, and state Sen. Gail Bates.
"When I first decided to run for office, I sent a letter out to all of the people on my Christmas card list," Bates said. "If you want to run for office, you should try to put your own money into it."
Voters also approved a measure to give the council more flexibility to move funds it cuts from the county executive's proposed budget to two buckets: the county's pension fund and a new contingency reserve fund.
Currently, the council can only reduce — not increase — the county executive's budget by restoring funds up to the level requested by the school board. If the council does not want to shift funds to the school board, it can reduce tax rates to balance the budget.