An emerging idea for public campaign financing in local races [Commentary]

Angst over big money's influence on politicians has seeped into Howard County where there's now a proposal to set up a modest matching-fund program for candidates in races for county executive and County Council.

The nascent "citizen funded campaigns" concept would allow candidates to tap into a pool of taxpayer dollars from the county's operating budget for their campaigns if they agreed to certain conditions, such as raising a baseline amount and capping donations.

Promoters believe democracy would be advanced — more people could get involved in politics, fundraising wouldn't be all-consuming and an influx of oversized donations from special interests might be curtailed.

More than a dozen states, including Maryland, sanction public funding for some races and presidential candidates and have been able to use tax funds for decades — although few do. Montgomery County, with a left-veering County Council, was the first in the state to set up a complicated matching fund for 2018 county races.

For Howard County, which takes pride in government integrity, the fine print of a fund's operation would be hashed out by a seven-member commission. If approved by voters, the program would start with 2022 races.

What's not clear yet is how much would have to be set aside from the budget for the program; the amount hinges on the number of candidates who take part. One estimate: $2 million every four years.

Muddier still are the need and efficacy. Howard has never been a hotbed of political shenanigans and costs to mount a countywide campaign, while rising, aren't astronomic. A Harvard academic's study called public funding "a double-edged sword." Some state legislatures became more polarized, the researcher said, and more fringe candidates surfaced.

Voters deserve the chance to weigh in, although this proposal seems more like a solution to a problem that doesn't exist.

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