Can Baltimore afford to finance candidates?

Who pays for candidates’ political campaigns? Somebody has to. It’s getting expensive to run for public office — almost any office. The average cost of a successful U.S. Senate campaign is in the neighborhood of $10 million, but local elections aren’t easy to finance either. The cost of advertising, rallies, yard signs, staff and other expenses adds up quickly. Gov. Larry Hogan and Lt. Gov. Boyd Rutherford have $9 million on hand, according to their most recent report, and it’s only June, and they don’t have a primary opponent. Even running for city offices isn’t cheap — the council president raised $798,000 the last time around.

The simple answer is that who foots the bill depends on the candidate. It’s usually some combination of donors, individuals and groups, big and small, along with those who can afford to pay their own way. But here’s where the real problem comes in: A lot of the donors are quite big, they don’t live around here, and they aren’t giving anybody anything merely out of the goodness of their hearts. In local government, the bread-and-butter of campaign donations comes from developers, labor unions and others who do a lot of business with government. They are the folks with the deep pockets and the quid pro quo motivation. To name just one example, rare is the construction project that doesn’t require various approvals from local government from zoning to permits and, in some cases, taxpayer-supported financing or infrastructure.

That makes campaign finance an area rife with potential conflicts of interest, yet limits imposed on donations and public disclosure requirements have been inadequate to address them. Take a look at any major decision facing a jurisdiction — whether it’s awarding a major contract or deciding how to invest pension funds or authorizing a blighted block’s redevelopment — and there’s a good chance that the beneficiary (or beneficiaries), from owners to builders to brokers to organized labor, have given substantial sums to the folks voting on it. So even if elected officials are convinced they’ve acted in the public’s best interests, there’s often the lingering appearance of impropriety.

That’s why a charter amendment scheduled to be heard by the Baltimore City Council on Wednesday is so important to the city’s future. It would for the first time authorize a public fund to finance city election campaigns. Like similar approaches in Montgomery and Howard counties, candidates for mayor, city council, council president or comptroller would qualify (through small donations) to receive matching money from the proposed “Fair Election Fund” in return for not accepting donations above a certain amount — perhaps $150. Indeed, the specifics of how this would work would be determined by an 11-member commission. Most likely the first city election held under this system would be in 2024.

There’s a lot standing in the proposal’s way. As a charter amendment, the bill offered by Councilman Kristerfer Burnett would have to pass the council, be signed by the mayor and then be approved by the voters. But the real obstacle may be overcoming the public’s natural distaste for seeing tax dollars go to directly benefit candidates. Proponents estimate they’d need to collect in the neighborhood of $2 million annually or $8 million over a four-year election cycle. What else might those tax dollars be used for — summer jobs, school counselors, expanded rec center hours? It’s not hard to envision uses that sound a lot more attractive than yard signs.

But if city residents want a lean and efficient government — and elected officials who work for them and not for special interests — that $8 million (or about 0.06 percent of the city budget) might be worth a hundred times that, a thousand perhaps. This type of voluntary campaign finance reform (a candidate doesn’t have to take advantage of it) can’t guarantee good government. But the status quo will guarantee that big donors will have big access and big influence. That should be a no-brainer.

This year, most of the candidates running in Montgomery County have elected to participate. In D.C., a similar measure passed the city council unanimously in January. Baltimore’s proposal leaves open all kinds of questions: Where will the money come from? What are the exact parameters to qualify? What percentage is the match? But that’s actually a good thing. It will be up to the 11-member commission to recommend specifics. The city council, mayor and voters need only to commit to creating a non-lapsing special purpose fund — and to the principal that we’d rather politicians be beholden to their neighbors then to self-interested outsiders.

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