Here's a question that all Maryland voters ought to be pondering: How confident are you that your locally elected leaders put the interests of their constituents ahead of their major campaign donors? As often as the issue of the nation's ineffective campaign finance laws has been raised on the national stage, from Hillary Clinton's vow to overturn the Citizens United Supreme Court decision to Donald Trump's claims that his opponent is a captive of Wall Street, the problem is felt just as acutely within city and county government.
On the local level, it might even be worse. For all the competing (and sometimes opposing) special interests represented in Washington, donations to county executives, councils and commissions are dominated by one group above all — real estate developers who rely on local government (and only local government) to make land use decisions that enable them to make money. Tens and even hundreds of millions of dollars in profits may be at stake when a county approves or disapproves the zoning required to build the latest high-rise, shopping center or subdivision, or when it establishes impact fees or other development-related charges.
Developers aren't just a campaign donor, they are the campaign donors. In Howard County in the 2014 election, for instance, the top contributors to candidates running for council and county executive were all developers (or limited liability corporations associated with them). Meanwhile, the beneficiaries of all these campaign donations must now decide how Columbia is to be redeveloped, a $2 billion-plus enterprise for which the county is expected to ultimately provide a multi-million-dollar tax increment financing package or TIF.
Fortunately for Howard residents, there is a possible solution at hand. Tucked away on the Nov. 8 ballot (right after the choices for president, U.S. Senate and House of Representatives) is Question A. Endorsed by a 4-1 council majority, it would amend the county charter so that future candidates for county executive and council would have the option of financing their campaigns publicly through a "Citizens' Election Fund System." No longer would county leaders be beholden to developers or other big contributors — or even suffer the appearance of being beholden.
The specifics of how such a campaign finance system would work haven't yet been established. Under a quirk of the charter, voters need to establish the fund first. The parameters are expected to be supplied later with the input of a citizens advisory board. But it's likely to operate similarly to the system adopted in neighboring Montgomery County two years ago — candidates have small private donations of no more than $500 matched by public dollars capped at a maximum amount. In return, they must agree not to accept large donations.
The Maryland General Assembly authorized such public financing of campaigns three years ago, but local governments have been slow to hop on board. There are two common criticisms — that tax dollars would be used and that public financing doesn't entirely eliminate the impact of big-monied interests since it places no limits on Super PACs. Neither is a particularly compelling criticism, especially weighed against the benefits of protecting voters against the influence of deep-pocketed special interests. Even so, using a voluntary check-off to finance the county fund should address taxpayer concerns.
The stakes are growing. The cost of the fund is projected to be in the neighborhood of $3 million, but it won't be in place until the 2022 election. Montgomery County's first election with public financing will be in two years. Other jurisdictions ought to wake up and take notice. The recent struggles over the massive Port Covington redevelopment and TIF in Baltimore might actually have been easier if voters had the assurance of knowing that they held as much sway with elected leaders of city government as developers do. The level of distrust — fueled by the historically cozy political relationships between builders and City Hall — might have been the biggest obstacle facing the deal.
Enough is enough. Even the $13 million Montgomery County is spending out of general fund dollars for its public financing program is trivial in a county with an annual operating budget of $5.2 billion. The office supply budget for printers, pens and paper clips is surely bigger. It's a small price to pay for good government and the peace of mind that comes from knowing the man or woman you elected to make sure roads are maintained, schools are funded and master plans aren't treated as a joke isn't bought and paid for by developers.