Baltimore City Hall where City Council members are set to debate a Fair Election Fund.
Baltimore City Hall where City Council members are set to debate a Fair Election Fund. (Jerry Jackson / Baltimore Sun)

On Tuesday beginning at 10 a.m., a key Baltimore City Council committee is set to take up legislation creating a system of public financing of political campaigns. Reducing the influence of money on local government ought to be a high priority for every community, but it has special resonance in Charm City in the wake of the “Healthy Holly” scandal that drove the last mayor from office. (Not that the rest of Maryland hasn’t seen its share of pay-to-play schemes at every level as well. Anyone remember Spiro Agnew? Joe Alton? Dale Anderson? Marvin Mandel? Jack Johnson?)

But outright corruption is only part of the problem. Good government also requires officeholders who are not beholden to special interests in legal ways, too. It’s not against the law for developers to get together and throw a major fundraiser for a city candidate, raising tens of thousands of dollars or more. What happens when it’s time for that City Council member or mayor to decide whether to approve a tax credit or zoning change on behalf of those developers? Even elected officials who vow to be impartial risk the appearance of favoritism. Creating an optional system of public financing with matching funds for small donations offers the best alternative.

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Can it work in Maryland? Absolutely. A recent report on how a similar setup worked in Montgomery County, the first Maryland subdivision to adopt such campaign finance reform, demonstrated that small donors will rise to the challenge. In the 2018 election (and once matching funds were thrown in), qualifying candidates raised competitive sums to those who declined to participate, according to the review by the Maryland PIRG Foundation. How is this possible? Because they attracted far more donors despite averaging individual contributions of less than $90 each instead of more than $1,100 each as did those who declined to participate.

In Baltimore, council members will likely debate the details of how this will work. How many small donations do candidates need to qualify for matching funds? What should be the limits for mayor, for comptroller, for council? The pending Fair Election Fund legislation introduced by Councilman Kristerfer Burnett may yet be tweaked by the judiciary committee and the full council, and that’s fine. But the more difficult concern is this: How should Baltimore pay for those matching funds? The bill being debated this week doesn’t actually address that challenge, nor should it. That’s for a later date (and a companion bill). But it remains the most difficult issue associated with campaign finance reform, particularly in a city that has so many pressing financial needs such as crime prevention, affordable housing, upgrading schools and addressing deteriorating public infrastructure.

Make no mistake, the projected $2.5 million annual cost represents a worthwhile investment, and we believe most city residents agree. That’s why voters approved a charter amendment last year authorizing the new fund by a 3-1 margin. And Baltimore isn’t the only Maryland subdivision on this road. Prince George’s and Howard counties are moving in this same direction, and Baltimore County will have a charter amendment to create such a system on the 2020 ballot. Good government may come at a price, but it’s a price taxpayers are willing to pay.

Here’s what the legislation won’t do: It won’t take away the advantages of incumbency. Organization, name-recognition, donor bases, the support of political parties, all those benefits that current officeholders enjoy will still be available to them. So those who complain that public financing doesn’t kick incumbents out of office are correct, but they miss the point. What public financing does successfully — and unquestionably — is make sure whoever wins an election is less beholden to special interests. It just makes sense that a person giving tens of thousands of dollars gets greater access than a person giving $86 (the average in Montgomery County) could ever expect.

Even now, members of the City Council are probably thinking of ways to make the cost more palatable. Perhaps they will favor a special tax or fee to cover a large part of the costs. We don’t think that’s necessary given the relatively modest cost (less than one-thousandth of a $2.9 billion annual operating budget). Money is money. Honest government is honest government. Baltimore residents are willing to spend a reasonable amount of the former to ensure the highly desirable latter.

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