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Fix Maryland’s failing system for public financing of gubernatorial campaigns | COMMENTARY

Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, second left, and running mate Boyd Rutherford, third from left, and their respective spouses, Yumi Hogan, left, and Monica Rutherford, right, wave to supporters after declaring their primary victory outside their campaign headquarters in 2014. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun).
Republican gubernatorial candidate Larry Hogan, second left, and running mate Boyd Rutherford, third from left, and their respective spouses, Yumi Hogan, left, and Monica Rutherford, right, wave to supporters after declaring their primary victory outside their campaign headquarters in 2014. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun). (Kenneth K. LAM / Baltimore Sun)

The Fair Campaign Financing Fund, Maryland’s nascent attempt at public financing of political campaigns, dates to the 1970s and has modestly helped level the playing field for at least a handful of candidates for governor. Its purpose was to reduce the influence of deep-pocketed special interests and perhaps give nontraditional candidates a better shot at election. The fund’s biggest success story to date may well be none other than the state’s current leader, Larry Hogan, who in 2014 was the first successful candidate for governor to use public financing. The choice made a lot of sense. He was a Republican in a state where Democrats had long held control over state government. He had not previously held public office. So instead of relying on large corporations, wealthy donors or the usual lobbyists, he agreed to participate in public financing seeking small donor “seed” money and capping overall spending. In return, his campaign received close to $3 million from the state.

Yet two problems with the fund have become increasingly obvious over time. The first is that it’s badly underfunded. The state’s mechanism for raising money for the fund, including a voluntary checkoff on income tax returns, has proven insufficient. Right now, the fund has a balance of just $3.8 million, which may seem like a lot, but it’s clearly not enough if multiple candidates participate in the primary and general elections. But the bigger problem is in how the fund works. A candidate for governor in 2022 could qualify for a grant from the FCFF with small donations but also continue to accept large donations. That defeats one of the primary purposes of public financing of political campaigns and it’s a loophole that needs to be closed immediately.

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The good news is that the Maryland General Assembly is positioned to do just that. Legislation to close that loophole and boost the fund balance by about $4 million next year is pending and likely to receive bipartisan support. Senate Bill 415 passed by a 39-6 vote on March 20. A House version of the bill received not a single objection when it was heard by the Ways and Means Committee in early February. But given that the 90-day clock on the legislature runs out in less than two weeks, its passage is far from a sure thing. That would be a huge mistake, particularly given the mounting concerns of Marylanders over free and fair elections and the rising interest in public financing as a means to accomplish just that.

Public financing of campaigns is no longer some post-Spiro Agnew liberal do-gooder initiative, it’s become the bread-and-butter political reform of jurisdictions intent on giving average citizens greater say in elections and in policymaking. Just name the special interest, whether it’s the NRA and Wall Street banks on one end of the political spectrum or labor unions and Big Tech on the other, and money talks whether in Washington, D.C., or state capitals, county seats or city halls. Sometimes lost is the reassurance that your elected officials are looking out for the electorate’s best interests and not simply pleasing their donors. And the fact it can open doors previously barred to women and minorities should not be ignored either.

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In Maryland, there’s been a rising interest at the local government level with Baltimore County the latest to join the bandwagon, having established just this week a work group to iron out details of public financing required under the Question A charter amendment approved by county voters last November. Beginning in 2026, candidates for county executive and County Council will have the opportunity to voluntarily participate in public financing (and with the limitations that work group is devising). It is the fifth jurisdiction to make that choice joining Baltimore City as well as Montgomery, Howard and Prince George’s counties.

The General Assembly could go one step further and provide a similar opportunity for candidates for the House and Senate but that seems unlikely this year if only because of the cost involved. Even Sen. Paul Pinsky, the longtime champion of election reform, dismissed the measure’s chances during the Feb. 18 hearing on SB 415. Still, revising the gubernatorial fund would make a nice building block in that direction. Critics may bemoan the use of public dollars (even those handed over voluntarily on a tax return checkoff) for yard signs, radio ads and the other detritus of political candidacy but these are dollars well spent if they give greater clout to average citizens and less to already-powerful single-interest groups.

The Baltimore Sun editorial board — made up of Opinion Editor Tricia Bishop, Deputy Editor Andrea K. McDaniels and writer Peter Jensen — offers opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. It is separate from the newsroom.

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