Baltimore's next step toward better government

With all the political scandal in the air of late, Baltimore voters might be forgiven if they’ve forgotten that they’ve already put the city on a path toward more ethical government — or at least one in which officeholders have fewer obligations to special interest groups and deep-pocketed campaign donors. Last November, a charter amendment to create a fund to finance the political campaigns of local candidates was approved by a 3-1 margin. How such a fund would work was not detailed by the measure but left to the City Council to work out at a later date.

That “later date” has finally arrived. On Monday, Councilman Kris Burnett is expected to introduce legislation that essentially fills in the blanks. Based on how similar efforts have moved forward in Montgomery, Howard, and most recently, Prince George’s counties, the bill is likely to draw some heated debate. But the City Council will have the benefit of their experience — particularly Montgomery County, the only Maryland subdivision to have actually gone through an election with voluntary public financing. Here are the major sticking points:

Who pays? If Baltimore is going to operate a “fund” to match small contributions to campaigns, it’s obviously going to have to come up with the money to pay for it. The city is likely to embrace voluntary donations (a $3 checkoff on property tax or water and sewer bills, for example), but that’s not going to cover the expected cost of $2 million to $2.5 million per year (up to $10 million per four-year election cycle). Other jurisdictions have simply dipped into general funds (as has the state for its “Fair Campaign Financing Fund” that applies to gubernatorial elections only). But that poses a bigger problem in Baltimore where diverting $2 million from education or public safety or recreation centers or summer jobs (you get the idea) might be a political non-starter.

The alternative would be to dedicate some revenue source such as developer impact fees or a tax on vacant or neglected multi-family housing units. That way no existing program would see reduced funding in order to pay for some candidate’s direct mail or TV ads or robocalls. Still, council members shouldn’t lose perspective. The fund’s total annual cost amounts to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the city budget.

Who qualifies? Not every candidate should be able to draw thousands of dollars from the fund for just showing up. They’ll have to qualify by demonstrating they can attract small campaign donations from residents of their district (or in the case of mayor, council president or comptroller, from across the city). How much? Councilman Burnett and his allies have taken stock of recent city elections (as well as Montgomery County’s experience) and come up with a formula: 500 donations totaling $40,000 for mayor, 250 donations totaling at least $15,000 for council president and 150 donations totaling at least $5,000 for City Council or comptroller. No donation for any candidate could be more than $150.

What’s the cap on public money for any candidate? The point of the fund is to make all campaigns competitive, not to assure they are top fundraisers, so Baltimore has to set some limits. Here, Councilman Burnett is offering some good targets. For mayor? No more than $1.5 million. For council president? Top is $375,000. Comptroller is $200,000, and City Council members could receive no more than $125,000 during the election cycle. Smartly, the councilman proposes to reduce the match as the donations increase in size. The first $25 given gets a 9-1 match, the next $50 is 5-1, the last $75 is 2-1. Incidentally, there would be no match for donations received from outside the city.

Now, let the debate begin. The numbers aren’t set in stone, and if anyone on the Baltimore City Council has a better idea of how to pay for public financing, they shouldn’t be shy about speaking up. But what they and their fellow Baltimoreans should have no doubts about is the necessity of putting more power in the hands of average citizens for whom a $25 check is a big deal and less power in the mitts of the rich and well-connected private businesses like, for instance, the University of Maryland Medical System. Need we say more? Public financing represents the best protection available against big corporations and political action committees, unions included, dominating the political landscape. It’s too late to have any impact on the 2020 election, but it’s time Baltimore worked out the details and put its system in place for the 2024 race.

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