Baltimore has come under intense scrutiny in recent days for public corruption. This is what happens when a former mayor is sentenced to three years in prison for conspiracy to commit wire fraud, conspiracy to defraud the United States, and two counts of tax evasion. Nor is the conviction of Catherine Pugh the first case of criminal prosecution of elected officials in the city. Baltimore Del. Cheryl Glenn is likely headed to federal prison, too, after pleading guilty to taking bribes for introducing legislation. Both broke the law, both were caught, both are paying the price. But ordinary citizens may be confused on a related matter: While it is illegal to bribe an elected official and always has been, it is not against the law to give a candidate for office a hefty campaign contribution in the thousands of dollars and then expect that individual, if elected, to be supportive of your causes. Or at least return your telephone calls.
This influence of big-money donors is one of the most destructive forces in government at all levels but there is one possible antidote: public financing of political campaigns that allow candidates to rely on small donations from average folks — $25 or $50 and the like — instead of $6,000 checks (or worse) from special interests. A key step in that direction came Monday with the introduction of legislation to finance Baltimore City Fair Elections Fund by directing $2.5 million annually from the city’s tax on electricity, gas, fuel oil, propane and steam. The legislation offered by Councilman Kris Burnett requires no tax increase. But instead diverts money that might be spent on energy infrastructure or the general fund to this purpose.
Some people may find this grating. After all, these are tax dollars that may ultimately end up being spent on paid advertising for candidates (the next billboard on the Jones Falls you see for the 2024 election cycle, for example). One can think of most pressing needs in Baltimore from upgrading schools to picking up litter. But, in reality, both those causes are well served if those who hold elected office in Baltimore are more beholden to voters and less to those who more typically finance local elections such as developers, unions and contractors who do business with government. We think most voters understand this. After all, city voters overwhelming approved campaign finance reform at the ballot in 2018. Councilman Burnett’s bill is simply to cover the cost.
We’re not suggesting that public financing of campaigns is a cure-all for what ails this democracy. But it’s not difficult to see the benefits of putting more power in the hands of people who make $25 donations and less in those who give the maximum per election cycle. Won’t it be great if Baltimore residents can be confident that a tax break extended to a local employer with expansion plans was done entirely to create jobs or improve the economy and not because the City Council was influenced by big donors associated with that project? Or how about at least allowing candidates for office who aren’t incumbents to be able to raise campaign funds on par with those who are? Baltimore’s critics like to harp on how city voters keep reelecting the same people. Public financing can help change that.
And how do we know this? It’s worked elsewhere including in Montgomery County where the difference between candidates who opted in and those who did not was extreme. According to a study by Maryland PIRG, the average campaign donation to a candidate who opted for public financing was $86. For those who declined to participate? A whopping $1,145. And those who elected to go the public route had about twice as many donors as those who did not. So which candidate is more likely to follow the will of the people of that county? The one with 850 donors or the one with an average 434?
Given everything that’s happened this past year from “Healthy Holly” on down, these reforms are well-timed. It’s not a handout to politicians but a handout to good government. Say what you will about taxes, if this reduces the influence of deep-pocketed special interests, everybody wins. Outright graft is already illegal, it’s time to put the final nail in the coffin of the legal kind of political influence.