Baltimore needs a fair elections fund

Montgomery County became the first jurisdiction in Maryland to employ a voluntary system of public campaign financing in this year’s elections, and the results in the Democratic primaries show just how effective it is. Six of the nine Democratic nominees for County Council used public financing, as did Mark Elrich, who has a razor-thin lead in the Democratic primary for county executive over businessman David Blair, who spent $3 million of his own money on the race. Candidates who use public financing aren’t beholden to deep-pocketed campaign contributors. They can spend time talking to voters, not begging for money. And the voters clearly responded.

Howard County will begin using public financing in its next elections. Former Del. John A. Olszewski Jr. made the issue a centerpiece of his campaign for Baltimore County executive. And today, the Baltimore City Council is poised to take the next step toward putting a charter amendment establishing a Fair Elections Fund on November’s ballot. Candidates who agree to strict limits on their fundraising could receive matching funds for the small contributions they receive. Mayor Catherine Pugh hasn’t said yet whether she will sign the measure, whose chief sponsor is Councilman Kris Burnett, but we urge her to do so.

We understand the argument that voters wouldn’t like the idea of their tax dollars going to fund political campaigns rather than more pressing needs like education and public safety. Let’s put that proposition to the test by letting them have a say in November’s election. Exact details of how the system will be funded — whether through a direct appropriation or some dedicated revenue source — are yet to be worked out, but it’s expected to cost about $2 million a year, a minuscule fraction of a percent of the city’s budget. We expect voters will consider the opportunity to choose among a broader range of candidates (and to have their voices command as much attention as big campaign donors) to be well worth that price.

The council is expected to give final passage to two other charter amendments on Monday. One is a measure to take the city’s Office of the Inspector General out from under the direct control of the mayor. The proposal, initially sponsored by Councilman Ryan Dorsey, would create a panel to hire and, if necessary, fire the inspector general. No one official or branch of government would be able to appoint a majority of the members, and the IG would serve a six-year term, making him or her more independent of mayoral administrations. It’s a great idea that would improve public confidence in city government. A well functioning IG could easily save the city more than the cost of the Fair Elections Fund.

We are ambivalent about the third charter amendment, a proposal by Councilman Brandon Scott that would establish a non-lapsing racial equity fund to support efforts to reverse Baltimore’s legacy of institutional racism and other forms of discrimination. We applaud the sentiment, and we feel much better about the idea now that it’s no longer tied to an arbitrary amount of annual funding, but we still think it’s a matter of proposing a solution before defining the problem. A companion bill by Mr. Scott to require agency-by-agency assessments of spending, policies and procedures to determine whether they foster or hinder racial equity, however, is a great idea. Let’s pass that, get the results, and then have a conversation about the fund.

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