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Editorial

In Anne Arundel, a second chance at good government | COMMENTARY

Most Anne Arundel County residents likely aren’t old enough to recall the late Joseph W. Alton Jr. who served as county executive, the subdivision’s first, beginning in 1965. In the early 1970s, he was caught up in the federal investigation of public corruption that also targeted Vice President Spiro T. Agnew and Baltimore County Executive Dale Anderson, all of whom made it a habit to take money from those who did business with government. Before he was sent off to the federal prison in Allenwood, Pennsylvania, Alton admitted his guilt but insisted that he had used the thousands of dollars that came his way strictly for political campaigns, not to line his own pocket. Still, he was willing to face the music. “I have no one to blame for these difficulties but myself,” he announced in U.S. District Court.

The lesson here is not only that the temptations of public corruption can be great but also that the most alluring bribes of all are campaign donations. And not just the cash-in-the-envelope variety. There are any number of ways that deep-pocketed special interests can funnel contributions to political campaigns in Anne Arundel and elsewhere that are perfectly legal. Big developers looking for special zoning permits? Public employee unions who want to see big cost-of-living raises in the next county budget? Contractors who supply goods or services to local agencies? They need only get in line. Just take a look at the candidates who run for countywide offices. A lot of familiar names are likely to show up on campaign finance reports (if you are knowledgeable enough to recognize them). Whether these donations cause county officials to provide special favors sometimes comes down to a chicken-or-egg argument. Did a developer get a special exception because he gave big money to the county executive or vice versa? And does it matter?

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There is a cure for this ailment. And that is to provide a way for candidates to win elected office without depending so heavily on special interest money. And given the cost of campaigning, there are basically just two ways to do this: Either be so rich you can self-fund, or, alternatively, your city, county or state needs to adopt a system of public financing of political campaigns that provides matching funds for small, qualifying private donations. Maryland has such a system for those running for governor that dates back to the, ahem, 1970s. Larry Hogan is among those who has made use of the system. Montgomery County adopted such a program for local races four years ago, and Baltimore City and Baltimore, Howard and Prince George’s counties are implementing similar reforms.

Anne Arundel had an opportunity to join their ranks six months ago but the Anne Arundel County Council failed to adopt campaign finance reform legislation by the needed super majority mustering only a 4-3 party-line vote in favor (Democrats voted yes, Republican members no). But, lo and behold, a voter petition to put the exact same system on the Nov. 8 ballot appears to have met the signature threshold (assuming at least 10,000 are verified by Aug. 9). That will give voters the final say on the matter.

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The chief threat to this good government initiative is that it will continue to be caught up in partisan politics. Critics will make the shortsighted claim that public money should not be used on such puffery as TV ads for candidates that inevitably bend the truth. But that fails to acknowledge the sad case histories of public corruption and the power of special interest campaign donations. Influence peddling is still influence peddling. How should taxpayers feel about using tax dollars to insulate elected officials from those who seek special treatment? It might be the best, most cost-effective use of public money ever, that’s how. You want a county executive or county council member who labors on behalf of voters or one mostly beholden to developers, contractors and other fat cats? Or even one who merely appears to be carrying their water because of big campaign donations? That alone hurts the government’s credibility.

Anne Arundel voters should educate themselves on this initiative. It wouldn’t be applied until the 2026 election, and the fund would be supervised by an independent commission with seven members appointed by the council and two by the county executive. The cost? That depends on how many candidates elected to participate in the voluntary system and whether they can qualify with enough small donations. But in Montgomery, the budget for matching funds is a mere $11 million. Given the stakes in county government (Anne Arundel’s annual operating budget is in the neighborhood of $2 billion), it’s a small price to pay.

Baltimore Sun editorial writers offer opinions and analysis on news and issues relevant to readers. They operate separately from the newsroom.


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