'Citizen-funded' campaign proposal garners public support at hearing

'Citizen-funded' campaign proposal garners public support at hearing
Howard County's proposed small donor matching program took center stage at the County Council's public hearing Tuesday. The resolution would create a citizen-funded campaign system that matches small campaign donations using public funds. (File photo by Jen Rynda, Baltimore Sun)

Howard County's proposed small donor matching program took center stage at the County Council's public hearing Tuesday night, as more than four dozen supporters attended in support for an opt-in program some said would amplify citizen voices in the face of big money in politics.

Wearing neon yellow stickers that read "Yes on CR-27," supporters of the program said matching funds would empower citizens, increase voter efficacy and participation in the public system and level the playing field for candidates.


Proposed by Council members Jon Weinstein and Jen Terrasa, the resolution would create a citizen-funded campaign system that matches small campaign donations using public funds. If passed by a Council vote on March 7, the measure would head to ballots in November and take effect for the 2022 election cycle. The details of the program would be hammered into legislation after the decision in November.

Pushed by the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision in 2010, which ignited a national conversation about the power of money in politics, publicly funded campaigns have picked up steam across the country. Joining nearly two-dozen states, Maryland lawmakers created an option for a publicly funded system in the campaign finance bill of 2013.

In 2014, Montgomery County became the first county to adopt a small donor matching funds program, which will be implemented in the 2018 election cycle. Before the program passed, the legislation under went 19 revisions.

Under the proposal, an independent commission would make funding recommendations for the program to the county executive and council.

The program would cost roughly $3 million over four years, according to an estimate by Common Cause. The estimate is based on a "fully utilized program" that covers two executive candidates and three candidates per council seat, said Jennifer Bevan-Dangel, executive director of Common Cause Maryland.

"This is an extremely unusual circumstance," said Weinstein, adding the actual costs may be significantly lower than estimates.

In order to qualify for matched funds, Common Cause recommends candidates mimic Montgomery County's program, which states the county executive must secure $40,000 with a minimum of 500 donations. Council candidates should secure at least $7,500 with a minimum of 125 donations, a threshold lower than the $10,000 required by Montgomery County. Bevan-Dangel said the qualifications sets an "achievable but aggressive bar."

In Howard County, public contributions could be capped at $750,000 — like Montgomery County — and $75,000 for council candidates, according to recommendations by Common Cause. Competitive races in Howard County are not as costly as Montgomery County's, said Bevan-Dangel.

Responding to critics who say matching funds subsidize campaigns, Bevan-Dangel said the program is a much-needed investment in democracy.

Common Cause recommended a matching system for the county executive and council. The first $50 of each contribution is matched at a 6:1 ratio for county executives and 4:1 for council candidates. The second $50 of each contribution is matched at a 4:1 ratio for county executive candidates and at a 2:1 for county council candidates. The final $50 would be matched at a 2:1 ratio for county executive. The third $50 would not be matched for council candidates.

'Leveling the playing field'

Arguments posed by residents, including two University of Maryland students, and advocacy organizations for the program aligned throughout the hearing.

Bevan-Dangel urged the council to not wait for corruption to weed itself into the council before acting. Emily Scarr, director of Maryland PIRG, a consumer group, echoed her statements, saying the program is a "preventative measure" that should be taken seriously "no matter how acute it is."

The hearing briefly became heated when Register of Wills Byron Macfarlane said the county's campaign system has "failed us," citing roughly $572,000 raised by Republican Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman as of January this year. "The status quo is not acceptable," he said.


Councilman Greg Fox, the lone Republican on the council, challenged Macfarlane's approach, saying, "You have really shown your partisanship and that is what is wrong here."

Fox referenced Weinstein's fundraising as an example of other public officials with significant fundraising.

In another instance, Fox asked how Rep. John Sarbanes raised funds. Sarbanes introduced similar legislation in Congress, known as the Government by the People Act, in order to fight "the corrosive influence of big-money politics," he wrote in a press release. He applauded the county for joining the "vanguard of cities, counties and states around the county."

Fox expressed concerns about how the program would be funded, asking whether the program's name, "publicly funded campaigns," indicated its funding source would be from donations or county funds.

Residents like Opel Jones said the program's intended purpose was clear.

"Small donations equates to more people … Send a message that the people are in charge and not a few wealthy donors," said Jones.

"This country is not run by the people for the people … it is run by big money. Period," said Larry Grosser, a Columbia resident.

Suzanne Geckle, a Sykesville resident, applauded Council members Terrasa and Weinstein for introducing the measure.

"As a voter, my voice will most likely be heard," she said, adding potential candidates interested in public service are "intimidated" by fundraising impediments.