Campaign reform in action [Editorial]

Conservative pro-business Republican Larry Hogan, a former appointments secretary under Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., and Del. Heather Mizeur, a liberal Democrat and ground-breaking advocate for gay rights who favors legalizing marijuana, wouldn't seem to have much in common politically, aside from the fact both are running for governor. But as of this week, they share an important common denominator — both have chosen to accept public financing of their primary campaigns.

That's good news because it demonstrates the viability of public campaign financing in Maryland after a 20-year dry spell. It's been two decades since a candidate for governor elected to use public funds to run for office — former House Minority Leader Ellen R. Sauerbrey having been the last. In the interim, candidates simply decided they were better off with the uncapped spending made possible by sticking to private donations.

And that's not the only breakthrough for public financing. In Montgomery County, there is growing political support for adopting public campaign financing on the local level, too. Everyone on the county council has chosen to co-sponsor the measure, which would cover candidates running for council and for county executive. That makes its passage almost certain.

The Montgomery County plan follows the same voluntary format as finance reforms have elsewhere: Candidates would have to collect small donations from a certain percentage of the electorate to demonstrate their viability. Once that is achieved, public dollars would be available — but, in return, the participating candidates would have to decline larger private donations.

The county effort was made possible by a 2013 law approved by the General Assembly that gives counties the option of adopting such campaign finance reform measures. Why haven't more subdivisions taken advantage? That's a good question, but it's likely because incumbents tend to prefer the status quo as they have a reliable advantage in attracting donations from developers and others with business before local government.

The point of such reforms is, of course, to make candidates less dependent on the financial largesse of special interests and the rich. It would allow a newly-elected governor or council member to not be beholden to anyone but the voters who elected him or her to office — at least not to deep-pocketed groups with a vested interest in government.

As a practical matter, seeking public financing made sense for Mr. Hogan, who entered the Republican primary race relatively late and was unlikely to raise as much privately as he may qualify for publicly. But he also noted that his decision "sends a great message" about his grass-roots efforts. Ms. Mizeur, who was in no danger of out-fundraising the two leading Democratic candidates, said her decision, too, was not just about dollars and cents but based on principles.

Ms. Mizeur has advocated for extending public financing to other elected offices, and we have, too. The best models can be found in Arizona, Maine, North Carolina and Connecticut. While none of those states have seen wholesale changes in the political hierarchy (incumbents still get re-elected often), the reforms have lessened the influence of big money. In Maine, for instance, majorities of those elected to the House or Senate opted for public financing so voters can be confident that major decisions in the state aren't influenced by campaign donations.

What makes Maryland's gubernatorial public financing system more palatable to some is that it's not taxpayer financed. Rather, it has been funded by a voluntary check-off on income tax returns. But we think that distinction is rather short-sighted and shouldn't stand in the way of broadening the program in the future. Few taxpayer dollars could be better spent than in the cause of clean government.

Nor should this effort be restricted to the states and local government. The Fair Elections Now Act introduced in Congress one year ago would offer similar reforms on the federal level. Considering the expense of such races and the lack of limits imposed on soft money donations in the wake of the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling, House and Senate candidates ought to have this option available to them — and not have to go begging to the Koch Brothers or organized labor or anybody else.

Whether Mr. Hogan or Ms. Mizeur win their parties' nominations is less important than their demonstration that a viable candidacy can be mounted on public funds. Montgomery County's experience is likely to be instructive, too. The more elections can be about the preferences of voters, and not the vested interests of major campaign donors, the better off government will be at every level, local, state and federal.

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